I’ve been teaching creative writing now for more that twenty-five years, and here are my best tips for starting your new writing year:
First, schedule your writing time like you would a dentist’s appointment. Why? Because as Dorothy Parker once said, “I hate writing; I love to have written.” We all hate going to the dentist, and most of the time, we also hate writing – coming up with words for the page is like pulling teeth. But after we’ve gotten the gumption and gotten it done, the afterglow of the results ranges from satisfaction to ecstasy.
So put it down on your calendar. And then, as soon as it is over, schedule your follow-up visit before you leave the office or you’ll never get around to it.
Next, during your writing session, don’t sit in front of a blank page trying to come up with something to say. Rather, let your mind wander to favorite memories, favorite subjects, or even to problems, worries or fears, and just write about them. Consider it a warm-up exercise before you get your game on.
As you warm-up, you’ll find that your mind naturally begins to feel its way around the subject you intend to write about. And at some point, you’ll come up with an idea on that topic that is so logistically important or emotionally powerful to that you find you’ve already started writing about it instead of the warm-up topics.
Third, never try to force the Muse to work on a story problem. Cut her free. By nature, she is full of boundless energy and wants to explore your creative mind with reckless abandon. Try to shackle your Muse to the task at hand, and she’ll balk. But if you let her run wild, even if it is WAAAAY off topic, it is like another warm-up exercise in the middle of the long routine of writing. Every once in a while you need to come up for air, feed your head, and give your heart some candy. In short, don’t feel that once you start working on your actual story that you can’t diverge whenever the Muse stands at the door with her leash asking to go for a walk.
Fourth, write about what you love. Sure, we all have dreams of writing a great novel or script, and perhaps we will, but don’t let that make you choose a less epic topic because you think it has the potential to be more noteworthy. In fact, the odds of writing something truly meaningful go WAY down if you don’t write about what moves you personally.
But here’s the rub – this is a real pisser for me personally… The kinds of stories I like to read are not the kinds of stories I’m very good at writing. Man, that gets stuck in my craw! I want to write sci-fi-ish action stories of great adventure, incredible discovery and amazing tales of triumph over unbelievable odds! But every time I try it is all mechanical, stilted, or (worst of all) completely lame.
Yep, I’d also like to be a pastry chef, but I’m good at making sauces. I’d like to be a chess champion, but I flub it all up, yet I can triumph in checkers or tic-fracking-tac-freaking-toe. My private horror (don’t tell anybody): what I’m good at is this. Yes, this. Writing inspiring articles so others can write all the wonderful things I’d like to write. What manner of hell is this?
Not to worry, though. I’ve just started a new novel, and for the first time it is something I really, really, really want to work on. I’m actually enjoying the writing of it and can’t wait until the next session – not like a dentist’s appointment at all: more like an ice cream social.
Yep, that happens too. But not often. So don’t wait for it – do the other stuff I’ve mentioned and get things “wrote” in between the rare bromance with a flirty story you just can’t resist.
Well, I’ve come to terms with it. That’s why you’ll find literally HUNDREDS of articles on story structure and storytelling here and also on my writing tips web site at Storymind.com [Self Serving Plug Alert]
I eventually came to the conclusion I’d rather write what comes naturally than get perpetually stuck trying to write what I like to read. If I want that other kind of story – the one I’m no good at – I’ll read somebody else’s. So, I’ve finally embraced the awful, yet sobering and even somehow calming notion that it is better to be a carefree pianist, bringing music into the world with little effort at all, than a continually struggling trombonist, blurting out a few stilted notes and never affecting anyone nor even finding satisfaction in my own work.
Summing up then my tips for you new writing year…
I urge you all to set up that time where you are forced (by resolution) to do nothing. And from that nothing will rise your Muse like a Kraken of Creativity, snarling out its arms to embrace every shiny, beckoning or threatening notion within its horizon, consuming it, and spewing out prose of a grand and powerful ilk upon the world, upon yourself, upon your soul.
May God have mercy upon us all, for we are writers.
Now get Kraken in this new year, for God’s sake (and for your own)!
Screenplays are blueprints for movies. As such, they are not art, but instructions for creating art. Therefore, there are two things every great screenplay must have: A good story, and a clear and understandable description of how it should be told.
Through the years, a standard format evolved that serves as a template for presenting a screenplay in script form. In addition, certain techniques emerged that became accepted as conventions of telling a story on the screen.
In this tip, I’ll outline a few of those methods often present in most successful scripts.
Though not absolutely required, it is usually desirable to start your script with a teaser scene. This can be an intense emotional experience, a thrilling bit of action, or an offbeat introduction to a strange world. It might advance the plot, set the theme, and establish the time and location, introduce characters, or just serve as a roller coaster ride to get the audience involved.
2. Remember your audience.
Your audience is the cast, crew, and all the agents, readers, development executives or producers who may become involved in the purchase or production of your script. Your audience is NOT the people sitting in the theater. Like the old game of “telephone,” your purpose is not to tell a story but to tell other how to tell the story. And your purpose is not to impress movie goers, but to impress those who decide if your project will get the green light for production.
3. Don’t be overly literary in your scene description.
Many production personnel frown on anything but straight-forward prose. The purpose of a screenplay is to tell people how to tell a story, not to tell it yourself. Still and all, successful screenwriters often violate this rule because they can get away with it. And, if you are planning on directing the movie yourself, you may want to capture your intended mood. On the other hand, you don’t want those considering your project to be bored, or find your words too dry. So, the concept is to be as efficient as possible in conveying both the information in your story and the feeling of what it will be like on the screen.
4. Don’t get stuck in a genre trap.
Genres are guidelines, not rules. List your favorite genres; list your favorite elements in each genre. Then, gather together all the elements you might like to include in your script. Pepper them throughout your screenplay so that your genre develops, rather than being set at the beginning and then stagnating.
5. Use “Tracking Dialog.”
Break up all long speeches into back and forth conversation. Sure, there are exceptions to this, but in general, conversation is far more interesting both in sound and in how it can be presented visually.
6. Find interesting and believable ways to drop exposition.
Have you ever seen one character tell another, “He’s at Dollar-Mart, you know, that big national chain store?” If it were so big and national, the other character would already know this information! One of the best ways to drop exposition is in an argument. You can then exaggerate and bring out information a character might already be expected to know by using it as a weapon. And for simple exposition, try billboards, newspapers, answering machines, photos on mantles, two people talking about a third, and any other technique that doesn’t hit the audience over the head or smack of cliche.
7. Don’t preach.
You should have a message, but don’t present it as a one-sided statement. Rather, show both sides. If you are interested in passing judgment on Greed, also show Generosity. Never put them both in the same scene side by side, but make sure the audience gets to see how well each side does on its own in at least once scene each per act. In the end, the audience will sum up all the instances in which they saw how each side performed, and will draw their own conclusions (that you have craftily led them to).
8. Give your Main Character a personal issue as well as a goal to accomplish.
A story with nothing more than a logistic quest, while perhaps thrilling, is heartless. Your Main Character should grapple with an issue that pressures him or her to consider changing their mind, attitude, or nature in some way, large or small. And don’t just present the personal problem and then resolve it at the end. Unless you argue it (usually through another character who is philosophically or morally opposed to the Main Character’s view) the ultimate change or growth of your Main Character will seem tacked on and contrived.
9. Characters don’t have to change to grow.
They can stick to their guns and grow in their resolve. There are two types of characters, those who change their natures (or minds) in regard to some issue, and those who stick it out and hold on to their views. The obstacles in a story drive a character to the point of change, but whether or not he or she will change is the issue, after all. Sometimes they should change and don’t. Other times they shouldn’t and do. Each of these presents a different message, and is less overused than the character who should change and does, or shouldn’t and doesn’t.
10.There are many kinds of endings
A character might change and resolve their personal angst, yet fail in their quest as a result. Was it worth it? Depends on the degree of angst and the size of the failure. Another character might not resolve their angst; yet by refusing to change accomplish the goal. And even if they do accomplish the goal, it might have been a misguided thing to do, and is actually quite bad that they were successful. The character might not have been aware that the goal was a bad thing, or they might fail to achieve a good thing.
In addition, goals might be partially achieved or only small failures, and a character might resolve only part of their angst, or just slightly increase it.
The flavor of the movie will ultimately depend on how all these elements stack up at the end and offer a palette of shadings, rather than just Happy or Sad, and Success or Failure.
Armed with these ten screenwriting tips, your next script can be richer and snappier.
Drudge people. You see them every day. On the news. In your town. Outside your window. Perhaps, even in your own home.
You can easily recognize them as they have lost their tales. With no tale, they are directionless, shuffling endlessly forward with no destination.
How did they become Drudge People? They were not born that way, oh no! Each and every one came into this world as we all did, with a curious mind and an inquisitive spirit. Life seemed an endless wonder and full of opportunities to explore. Each new discovery was a tale to tell – a eureka moment so powerful that we ran to share it with our loved ones and friends, lest it burst within us before we could release the pressure of epiphany.
And then we started school. Suddenly, there was regimen. Conformity was rewarded, individuality punished. Oh, not in in such direct terms (that would be abhorrent to our democratic ideals in these United States.) And yet, we were all gently guided away from enthusiasm and into the soft protective embrace of routine. Layer by layer, responsibilities, obligations, social sensitivity, compromise and procrastination became our shellac and armor in what we were constantly reminded was a cold and dangerous world.
Our education ended when we were fully indoctrinated, inoculated, and insulated from any original thinking and targeted instead on whatever mindless task was placed before us. In short, we were ready for the work place. And it was here the alchemist’s art of turning students into automatons was refined into the science of creating a population of robot-slaves.
In a technically savvy world, the shackles must be so subtle as to be invisible to all except the jailers – the emperor’s new closed mind. No tangible restraints can be seen. But for those with a keen eye and a little patience, you can identify the Drudge People in our midst. If you suspect someone, ask yourself, “When was the last time (Person Z) bolted into my cubicle aglow with something (he or she) couldn’t wait to tell me?” When was the last time they posted something original on Face book, other than their new high score on some life-eating game or a link to someone else’s pictures or a re-post of someone else’s thought or (most telling of all) simply clicked the “Like” button without writing anything in response? You see, when you lose your tale you have nothing to say. The Muse has run out of you and your creative juices have crystallized in your veins.
We become infected whenever we consume rather than create, when we opt for a virtual experience instead of an actual one, a recorded adventure as a safer substitute for the real thing. The more we show up right on time for our daily coat of varnish, the less it becomes our shield and the more it serves as our prison. After years of build-up, the constraints have become so thick that one may become wholly beyond redemption.
But there is hope for some of us, my friends. If your eyes have been opened and you can now (perhaps for the first time) see the glossy membranes that are hardening around you, there is still a chance to avoid permanent incarceration. You need to re-grow your tale. This will not be easy. Through atrophy, it has likely been almost wholly absorbed back into your system and re-tasked as raw material to be added to your casing.
Begin as thus: seek out original thinkers – those few individuals whose clarion voices resound out above the din of the mindless masses. They are they outcasts, perhaps even the outlaws in our civilized society. Listen to their call, but not too long, for it as easy to become lured by the siren song as it is to become deaf to innovation.
Take in these new voices just long enough to resonate within yourself – to build up a sympathetic vibration that begins, ever so gradually, to create cracks in your full mental jacket. Then funnel the energy of those maverick rants into your core – recharge the cells at the base of your tale until, through the synthesis of many alternative ideas you begin to form one of your own.
All it takes is a single concept – something you’ve not thought or heard before. Take note – this is a delicate and crucial time in the clockwork of your escape! Do not let that concept simply fade away as you are distracted by the next mind-numbing diversion that drifts upon you from the mill of collective mundanity. Nurture that embryonic thought, feed it with research and water it with conjecture. Allow it to place roots in your mind, so strong that it will not be scoured from your consciousness by the next brisk breeze of life. Grow it stout and tall until it bears fruit. And as it expands, it will poke out through one of the cracks in your cage and you will find that your tale has begun to grow again.
But tales are not self-sustaining, they must be exercised regularly if they are to become and remain the rudder of your life course. This can only be accomplished by putting them into action – wagging your thoughts. And you do this just as when you were a child – you run excitedly to your loved ones and friends to tell them of your wonderful new experience or discovery.
You can do this in fiction. You can do it in fact. You can do it in music or pictures or words. You will find that it quickly burns within you – an intensity of life you had either forgotten or perhaps not ever experienced. And the more your engage it, the more brightly it shines, as do you.
And finally, when you are a self-starting engine of creativity, when life has become both raw and meaningful again, perhaps you will take a moment to cast a life line to another who is still not wholly beyond hope. A life line such as this article I’m throwing to you. But, for the love of God, don’t just post a link to this or simply “like” it without any original comments of your own, or you may be truly lost and doomed to remain one of the Drudge People forever….
A whole flock of Story Gurus (myself included) will tell you that stories have structure. Therefore, if you learn that structure you’ll improve your stories. Ostensibly, this will lead to fame, riches, a keen sense of accomplishment, and the unparalleled pleasure of the act of writing itself.
But is that true? Do stories have a structure? And even if they do, is there really any way to figure out what it is? Based solely on the number of competing theories, one might suspect that either stories don’t have structures or that even those who spend their entire lives trying to figure it out, can’t!
But there’s an alternative explanation – actually, a couple of them, and I’d like to share those with you now….
First of all, we have two questions:
1. Do stories have structures?
2. Can we ever really define what they are?
We’ll take them in turn.
Stories have structure. There, I said it. But now I have to prove it. And so I’ll say something else – not all written works are stories. And many of those other kinds of writing don’t have any structure at all. In other words, when people use the term “stories” in a casual way to mean any durn thing an author writes, well, then it is impossible to agree if stories have structure or not, ’cause some of them do and some of them don’t.
So the first thing we need to do is divide what we commonly think of as stories into two different camps. One includes all those written works that have structure and the other contains all the written works that don’t.
Now its pretty silly to say that that any written work could exist that has absolutely no structure. So I’ll go back a bit on what I said. Even a dictionary has structure, sentences have structure, and paragraphs follow the conventions of a particular gramatic form.
Every random collection of words with no intent behind them has structure. Why? As a species we see animals in clouds, mythic figures in glops of stars, and impose images on inkblots. From this we can surmise that the human mind tries to impose structure even on chaos. No matter what written work we might examine, no matter how fluid and free-form, there will be those who see a clear structure in the thing.
Let’s no be so picky. If you see structure in everything, then you already don’t think structure is a myth so my work is done here. But when most people think of structure in regard to writing, they are not talking about grammar or form. Rather, they have “formula” in mind. In other words, writers tend to equate structure with a rigid formula for telling a story – a list of requirements that must be met or the story will suffer.
So let’s go with that and refine our first question to read as follows:
1. Is there a rigid formula that must be followed to write a successful story?
Wait a minute! Didn’t I just say “Stories have structure,” and now I’ve turn ’round and proclaimed , “No they don’t.”
Yes. Yes I did. And here’s why…. Stories have structure but that structure isn’t a rigid formula; it is a flexible form. That’s why its so hard to see – its never quite the same from one story to the next.
Yet, the elements remain the same: There are Characters, Plot and Theme. There are personal problems, and goals, and moralities. There are acts, and scenes and beats. We feel their necessity, we sense their consistency, yet these are just impressions. The actual nature of the structure remains elusive, seen only in glimpses in shadows, never showing itself clearly.
This is not surprising. It is like the old story of three blind men trying to describe an elephant: One feeling the trunk, “It is long and twisty like a snake”. Another, examining the leg, “It is tall and round like a tree.” The last, exploring the ear, “It is thin and flat like a rug.”
Story Gurus are each describing the same elephant in the room. Each is seeing a portion of the truth. While the descriptions seem in conflict or at least disparate, they are really just parts of the same beast.
I’m not here to promote my particular view of the critter. Rather, I figure my “truth” is also just another facet of a greater “Truth”. So in regard to the questions I posed, let me answer like this:
Yes, stories have structure. No, we’ll never see the whole of it. But the more story gurus you study, the more sides you see of what stories are, what they can be, how they work, and how to build them.
Embrace what works for you, reject what feels wrong, and strive to develop your own take on story structure, always remembering that no matter how clearly it appears to you, its probably just another piece of the puzzle.
The bottom line is that you should apply structure only in ways that enhance your productivity and your enjoyment in pursuing your craft. Anything else has no more place in your writing life than a rigid structure can be applied to every kind of story.
To that end, I created a couple of software products for writers: StoryWeaver (for inspiration and development) and Dramatica (for structure). Check ’em out, and help support this poor, retired, teacher of creative writing, eh?
There are two ways to approach the craft of writing. The first is to step into the role of each character and write it very personally, as if you were an actor portraying a part. The second is to consider what each character must do to fulfill its purpose in the story, then orchestrate their interactions as if you were directing a movie or stage play.
Each of these methods has its own advantages and disadvantages. Let’s explore them one at a time and then see how we can use them both to make our story at compelling as possible.
On the plus side, the Writer-Actor exudes passion. His or her characters are alive with a personal perspective with which the reader or audience can instantly and deeply identify.
Each character is seen through the eyes of all the others, so the reader/audience feels as if they come to know the characters, not just as players in the Big Picture, but as real people who not only love and hate, but are loved and hated as well.
This creates a rich emotional fabric to a story. But the benefits of being a Writer-Actor don’t stop there. Indeed, even the narrative itself benefits from this approach. Small experiences and individual observations illuminate the environments through which the characters pass.
A Writer-Actor’s narrative is likely to be filled with sensory descriptions as to the temperature, background sounds, colors, textures, tastes, and smells that are present in each scene. In this way, not only do the characters feel real, but so does the world in which they move.
But what about the downside of such a personal approach? The greatest danger of allowing oneself to actually become a character while writing is that one loses site of the needs and structure of the overall story.
Characters tend to take on a life of their own and almost demand that they move in certain directions, even if those are in conflict with the purposes of the story at large. In addition, the benefits of some unifying overview are often lost in the cacophony of individual voices.
Having briefly explored the pros and cons of the Writer-Actor approach, let’s examine some of the benefits and drawbacks of the Writer-Director’s method.
In the plus column, the Writer-Director produces a vision. The characters take on a grand importance as pawns in a larger scheme, a greater meaning.
Each character is seen as a cog in an elegant machine, inexorably moving forward like clockwork toward a specific purpose which will ultimately be revealed. The natures of their interrelationships are discovered and defined as understandable threads in the tapestry of the tale.
In addition, characters are tied directly to plot, theme, and genre, integrating them into the story as a whole, illustrating their interdependence with the forces that shape their world and, by inference, ours as well.
But in the negative column, a Writer-Director tends to objectify characters, leading them to come across more as puppets than people. All the beats of character growth are precisely hit, yet the overall flow can feel forced and formulaic.
What’s more, the stage on which the characters strut can seem more Machiavellian than organic, and the story plods along in some sort of Calvinistic pre-destination rather than an unknown realm in which anything might happen.
If you have begun to think that perhaps neither of these approaches, by itself, is sufficient to the task of creating a passionate story that leads to a well-defined message, you are correct.
And that is the point of this exercise. By nature each of us tends to be one of these two kinds of writers. As a result, we excel in half of what readers/audiences are craving, yet fall short in the other side of their needs.
The solution, of course, is to learn to employ tools in the areas in which we do not have natural ability or inclination. That is, in fact, the concept behind learning the craft of writing. We study and exercise not to make ourselves more talented, but to supplement our effectiveness in those areas in which we are not as innately gifted.
So, the first step of the task at hand is to identify which kind of writer you are. The second step is to practice writing with the other method as well.
Here’s a handy method for finding out which kind of writer you are naturally:
1. First, sit down to create a character from scratch. Pick a name, a gender, an age, a job or vocation and a problem or goal that is their biggest concern in their lives.
2. Based only on that limited information about that character try to put yourself in the character’s shoes. Imagine you are them, they are you. See if you easily get a feel for them or can even make yourself feel as if this is happening to you.
3. Now see if you can come up with a description of how the problem or goal affects their lives and what they are thinking or doing about it. Who are the other people in their lives, and how are they affected at a personal and/or emotional level by the problem and by the potential solutions?
If you found that exercise easy, perhaps even fun, then you are a Writer-Actor by nature. If you found it tedious, uninspiring, and fruitless, you’re a Writer-Director.
Now, to be sure which kind of writer you are, try the other method:
1. Start with the same bare-bones information about the character, their problem or their goal and ask yourself what you want them to do about it.
2. List some other characters you want in your story and describe how you want them to help or hinder your character.
3. What kinds of character conflicts do you wish to explore, which characters are they between, and how are these resolved?
If this was the easier one, then you are a Writer-Director without doubt. You see, both approaches are trying to get to the same place, but they come to it from a different creative mind set. And in so doing, they miss different things along the way.
In summary then, to enhance your abilities as a writer, you need to be fluent in both the Writer-Actor and the Writer-Directory approach, using them in a complementary fashion to fully ignite the fires of passion within a solid logistic framework.
But how can you accomplish that? How can you develop your skills in both areas?
Here are two methods to get you going. Well call this strategy, “Hats and Charts,” and again, we’ll explore them one at a time:
Hats (for developing Writer-Actor skills)
A surprising number of authors actually wear different hats while writing different characters. I’m not speaking metaphorically here, they actually wear physical hats. This helps them imagine themselves as a given character, such as a cop or a chef.
Not surprisingly, the extension of this is to wear costumes – the clothing you expect your character might brandish. It can be as simple as a scarf, the way you comb your hair, your make-up, perfume or cologne, or all the way to a full wardrobe.
It is really not as silly as it sounds. Do you not feel differently depending upon the kind of clothing you wear on a given day? Does not a uniform influence the way a person thinks? It is not any less true that a writer’s work will very depending upon what he or she is wearing while creating.
Try music that a character might play, put on a television show or movie your character might watch. Tack pictures your character might have in their home to a cork board in your line of sight as you write. Perhaps add pictures that seem like the realm in which they move – a desert island, a ship, the dark dungeons below the Vatican.
All of these ideas grow from the “Hats” concept. You can and should give some time to thinking about other similar ways of making yourself feel like your character feels.
Charts (for developing Writer-Director skills)
To become a better Writer-Director, you need a completely different plan – “Charts”. The idea here is to objectify your characters – to see them as components in the store, elements with which you will build the tale.
You can begin my making a chart of each character and listing as many details about them as you can. For example, where did each character go to school? What hobbies does each have? What are their religious affiliations, if any? To what political party do they belong? How strongly do they subscribe to the philosophies in these groups? What are their physical abilities/disabilities? What are their hair colors, skin texture, skin color, weight?
Create a time-line graph for each characters’ emotional journey through the story. Use different colors for different moods or feelings and plot the intensity of those emotions. By examining these passions analytically, it helps you see patterns and uncover skipped or missed beats in the flow.
Using index cards and colored yarn show all the relationships among your characters including familial, professional, historical, philosophical, and so on.
Try writing a description of each character as if you were a private detective hired to follow them for a day. You have no personal interest in the character, but your job is to document everything they do (and even how they act) in as much detail as possible.
Each of these exercises helps you step out of a character’s shoes and see them in a functional manner, both as themselves and also how they interact with others.
Hats and Charts together:
As you have no doubt surmised, the perspectives of the Writer-Actor and Writer-Director are so divergent that it is virtually impossible to do both at the same time. In the writing process, therefore, you should use them in succession.
Begin with the approach to which you are naturally inclined for this will provide you with the greatest raw inspiration. When you have finished a section or your Muse comes up for air, use the opportunity (which would otherwise be wasted down-time) to apply the exercises from your secondary approach to the material you have just written.
By revisiting the material while it is still fresh in your creative spirit, but from an alternate point of view, you can reprocess the material and fill in the gaps left by your initial creative burst.
Once you have finished the complete story, go back and run it through both approaches again to ensure that not only do the individual scenes sing like a Spring bird, but that the entire work unfolds smoothly, like the passage of a fine season.
In the end, if you take the time to learn, practice and employ both methods of developing characters, your stories will be far more powerful, well rounded, and well received.
Just a reminder, you’ll find both of these approaches are integrated into my StoryWeaver Story Development Software that takes you step by step from concept to completed novel or screenplay through a path of more than 200 interactive Story Cards.
Click here to learn more or to try it risk free for 90 days!
Even when a story has memorable characters, a riveting plot and a fully developed genre, it may still be coming apart at the themes. In this article, we’ll find out how to recognize this problem, and what to do about it.
Theme is perhaps the most powerful, yet least understood element of story structure. It is powerful because theme is an emotional argument: It speaks directly to the heart of the reader or audience. It is least understood because of its intangible nature, working behind the scenes, and between the lines.
When mis-used, theme can become a ham-handed moral statement in black and white, alienating the reader/audience with its dogmatic pontifications. When properly used, theme can add richness, nuance, and meaning to a story that would otherwise be no more than a series of events.
In this article, we’ll separate the elements of theme by their dramatic functions so we can understand the parts. Then we’ll learn how to combine them together into a strong message that is greater than the sum of the parts.
What do we really mean by the word, “theme?” In fact, “theme” has two meanings. The first meaning is not unlike that of a teacher telling a class to write a theme paper. We’ve all received assignments in school requiring us to express our thoughts about “how we spent our summer vacation,” or “the impact of industrialization on 19th century cultural morality,” or “death.” Each of these “themes” is a topic, nothing more, and nothing less. It functions to describe the subject matter that will be explored in the work, be it a paper, novel, stage play, teleplay, or movie.
Every story needs a thematic topic to help hold the overall content of the story together, to act as a unifying element through which the plot unfolds and the characters grow. In fact, you might look at the thematic topic as the growth medium in which the story develops. Although an interesting area to explore, the real focus of this article is on the other element of theme.
This second aspect of theme is the message or premise of your story. A premise is a moral statement about the value of or troubles caused by an element of human character. For example, some common premises include, “Greed leads to Self-Destruction,” and “True love overcomes all obstacles.”
A story without a premise seems pointless, but a story with an overstated message comes off as preachy. While a premise is a good way to understand what a story is trying to prove, it provides precious little help on how to go about proving it. Let’s begin by examining the components of “premise” and then laying out a sure-fire method for developing an emotional argument that will lead your reader or audience to the moral conclusions of your story without hitting them over the head.
All premises grow from character. Usually, the premise revolves around the Main Character. In fact, we might define the Main Character as the one who grapples with the story’s moral dilemma.
A Main Character’s moral dilemma may be a huge issue, such as the ultimate change in Scrooge when he leaves behind his greedy ways and becomes a generous, giving person. Or, the dilemma may be small, as when Luke Skywalker finally gains enough faith in himself to turn off the targeting computer and trust his own instincts in the original Star Wars movie (Episode IV). Either way, if the premise isn’t there at all, the Main Character will seem more like some guy dealing with issues, than an example in human development from whom we can learn.
Traditionally, premises such as these are stated in the form, “This leads to That.” In the examples above, the premises would be “Greed leads to Self Destruction,” and “Trusting in Oneself leads to Success.” The Point of each premise is the human quality being explored: “Greed” in the case of Scrooge and “Self Trust” with Luke.
We can easily see these premises in A Christmas Carol and Star Wars, but what if you were simply given either of them and told to write a story around them? Premises are great for boiling a story’s message down to its essence, but are not at all useful for figuring out how to develop a message in the first place.
So how do we create a theme in a way that will guide us in how to develop it in our story, and also sway our audience without being overbearing? First, we must add something to the traditional “This leads to That” form of the premise. Beside having a thematic Point like “Greed” we’re going to add a Counterpoint – the opposite of the point – in this case, “Generosity.”
Arguing to your audience that Greed is Bad creates a one-sided argument. But arguing the relative merits of Greed vs. Generosity provides both sides of the argument and lets your audience decide for itself. Crafting such an argument will lead your reader or audience to your conclusions without forcing it upon them. Therefore, you will be more likely to convince them rather than having them reject your premise as a matter of principle, making themselves impervious to your message rather than swallowing it whole.
To create such an argument, follow these steps:
1. Determine what you want your story’s message to be
We all have human qualities we admire and others we despise. Some might be as large as putting oneself first no matter how much damage it does to others. Some might be as small as someone who borrows things and never gets around to returning them. Regardless, your message at this stage will simply take the form, “Human Quality X is Bad,” or “Human Quality Y is Good.”
If you are going to create a message that is passionate, look to what truly irks you, or truly inspires you, and select that human quality to give to your Main Character. Then, you’ll find it far easier to come up with specific examples of that quality to include in your story, and you will write about it with vigor.This is your chance to get up on the soapbox. Don’t waste it on some grand classic human trait that really means nothing to you personally. Pick something you really care about and sound off by showing how that trait ennobles or undermines your Main Character.
As a last resort, look to your characters and plot and let them suggest your thematic point. See what kinds of situations are going to arise in your story; what kinds of obstacles will be faced. Think of the human qualities that would make the effort to achieve the story’s goal the most difficult, exacerbate the obstacles, and gum up the works. Give that trait to your Main Character, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised to see it take on a life of its own.
Of course, you may already know your message before you even get started. You may, in fact, have as your primary purpose in creating the story the intent to make a point about a particular human quality.
No matter how you come up with your message, once you have it, move on to step 2.
2. Determine your Counterpoint.
As described earlier, the Counterpoint is the opposite of the Point. So, if your story’s message is “Being Closed-Minded is Bad,” then your Point is “Being Closed Minded,” and your Counterpoint is “Being Open Minded.”Similarly, if your message is “Borrowing things from others and not returning them is Bad,” then your counter point is “Borrowing things from other and returning them.”
Note that we didn’t include the value judgment part of the message (i.e. “Good” or “Bad”) as part of the point or counterpoint. The idea is to let the audience arrive at that conclusion for themselves. The point and counterpoint simply show both sides of the argument. Our next step will be to work out how we are going to lead the audience to come to the conclusion we want them to have.
3. Show how well the Point does vs. the Counterpoint.
The idea here is to see each of the two human qualities (point and counterpoint) in action in your story to illustrate how well each one fares. To this end, come up with as many illustrations as you can of each.
For example, in A Christmas Carol, we see scrooge deny an extension on a loan, refuse to allow Cratchet a piece of coal, decline to make a donation to the poor. Each of these moments fully illustrates the impact of the thematic point of “Greed.” Similarly, in the same story, we see Feziwhig spending his money for a Christmas Party for his employees, Scrooge’s nephew inviting him to dinner, and Cratchet giving of his time to Tiny Tim. Generosity is seen in action as well.
Each instance of Greed propagates ill feelings. Each instance of Generosity propagates positive feelings. As the illustrations layer upon one another over the course of the story, the emotional argument is made that Greed is not a positive trait, whereas Generosity is.
4. Avoid comparing the Point and Counterpoint directly.
Perhaps the greatest mistake in making a thematic argument is to directly compare the relative value of the point and counterpoint. If this is done, it takes all decision away from the audience and puts it right in the hands of the author.
The effect is to have the author repeatedly saying, “Generosity is better than Greed… Generosity is better than Greed,” like a sound loop.
A better way is to show Greed at work in its own scenes, and Generosity at work in completely different scenes. In this manner, the audience is left to drawn its own conclusions. And while showing Greed as always wholly bad and Generosity as always wholly good may create a rather melodramatic message, at least the audience won’t feel as if you’ve crammed it down its throat!
5. Shade the degree that Point and Counterpoint are Good or Bad.
Because you are going to include multiple instances or illustrations of the goodness or badness or your point and counter point, you don’t have to try to prove your message completely in each individual scene.
Rather, let the point be really bad sometimes, and just a little negative others. In this manner, Greed may start out a just appearing to be irritating, but by the end of the story may affect life and death issues. Or, Greed may be as having devastating effects, but ultimately only be a minor thorn in people’s sides. And, of course, you may choose to jump around, showing some examples of major problems with Greed and others that see it in not so dark a light. Similarly, not every illustration of your Counterpoint has to carry the same weight.
In the end, the audience will subconsciously average together all of the illustrations of the point, and also average together all the illustrations of the counterpoint, and arrive at a relative value of one to the other.
For example, if you create an arbitrary scale of +5 down to -5 to assign a value of being REALLY Good (+5) or REALLY Bad (-5), Greed might start out at -2 in one scene, be -4 in other, and -1 in a third. The statement here is that Greed is always bad, but not totally AWFUL, just bad.
Then, you do the same with the counterpoint. Generosity starts out as a +4, then shows up as a +1, and finally ends up as a +3. This makes the statement that Generosity is Good. Not the end-all of the Greatest Good, but pretty darn good!
At the end of such a story, instead of making the blanket statement that Greed is Bad and Generosity is Good, you are simply stating that Generosity is better than Greed. That is a lot easier for an audience to accept, since human qualities in real life are seldom all good or all bad.
But there is more you can do with this. What if Generosity is mostly good, but occasionally has negative effects? Suppose you show several scenes illustrating the impact of Generosity, but in one of them, someone is going to share his meal, but in the process, drops the plate, the food is ruined, and no one gets to eat. Well, in that particular case, Greed would have at least fed one of them! So, you might rate that scene on your arbitrary scale as a -2 for Generosity.
Similarly, Greed might actually be shown as slightly Good in a scene. But at the end of the day, all of the instances of Greed still add up to a negative. For example, scene one of Greed might be a -4, scene two a +2 and scene three a -5. Add them together and Greed comes out to be a -7 overall. And that is how the audience will see it as well.
This approach gives us the opportunity to do some really intriguing things in our thematic argument. What if both Greed and Generosity were shown to be bad, overall? By adding up the numbers of the arbitrary scale, you could argue that every time Greed is used, it causes problems, but ever time Generosity is used, it also causes problems. But in the end, Greed is a -12 and Generosity is only a -3, proving that Generosity, in this case, is the lesser of two evils.
Or what if they both added up Good in the end? Then your message might be that Generosity is the greater of two goods! But they could also end up equally bad, or equally good (Greed at -3 and Generosity at -3, for example). This would be a message that in this story’s particular situations, being Greedy or Generous doesn’t really matter, either way; you’ll make the situation worse.
In fact, both might end up with a rating of zero, making the statement that neither Greed nor Generosity has any real impact on the situation, in the end.
Now, you have the opportunity to create dilemmas for your Main Character that are far more realistic and far less moralistic. And by having both point and counterpoint spend some time in the Good column and some time in the Bad column over the course of your story, you are able to mirror the real life values of our human qualities and their impact on those around us.
Well, that about wraps it up except for this:
The approach to theme you just read about is part of my StoryWeaver Story Development Software. I designed it to take you through all aspects of building your story from concept to completion, step by step. You can try it risk-free for 90 days, and if it isn’t your cup of tea, you’ll get a full refund, no questions asked.
Characters reflect real people in a purified or idealized state. And so, we can see in them qualities and traits that are hard to see within ourselves. One of the most difficult challenges we face every day are exemplified by characters in virtually every story – the inability to confidently understand “what is truth?”
In this article, excerpted from the Dramatica Narrative Theory Book I wrote with Chris Huntley, the elusive and changing nature of truth is explored for the benefit of your characters and yourself.
What Is Truth?
We cannot move to resolve a problem until we recognize the problem. Even if we feel the inequity, until we can pinpoint it or understand what creates it, we can neither arrive at an appropriate response or act to nip it at its source.
If we had to evaluate each inequity that we encounter with an absolutely open mind, we could not learn from experience. Even if we had seen the same thing one hundred times before, we would not look to our memories to see what had turned out to be the source or what appropriate measures had been employed. We would be forced to consider every little friction that rubbed us the wrong way as if we have never encountered it. Certainly, this is another form of inefficiency, as “those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
In such a scenario, we would not learn from our mistakes, much less our successes. But is that inefficiency? What if we encounter an exception to the rules we have come to live by? If we rely completely on our life experience, when we encounter a new context in life, our whole paradigm may be inappropriate.
We all know the truisms, “where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” “guilt by association,” “one bad apple spoils the bunch,” “the only good (fill in the blank) is a dead (fill in the blank).” In each of these cases we assume a different kind of causal relationship than is generally scrutinized in our culture. Each of these phrases asserts that when you see one thing, another thing will either be there also, or will certainly follow. Why do we make these assumptions? Because, in context, they are often true. But as soon as we apply them out of context they are just as likely false.
Associations in Space and Time
When we see something occur enough times without exception, our mind accepts it as an absolute. After all, we have never seen it fail! This is like saying that every time you put a piece of paper on hot metal it will burn. Fine, but not in a vacuum! You need oxygen as well to create the reaction you anticipate.
In fact, every time we believe THIS leads to THAT or whenever we see THIS, THAT will also be present, we are making assumptions with a flagrant disregard for context. And that is where characters get into trouble. A character makes associations in their backstory. Because of the context in which they gather their experiences, these associations always hold true. But then the situation (context) changes, or they move into new areas in their lives. Suddenly some of these assumptions are absolutely untrue!
Hold on to Your Givens!
Why doesn’t a character (or person) simply give up the old view for the new? There are two reasons why one will hold on to an outmoded, inappropriate understanding of the relationships between things. We’ll outline them one at a time.
First, there is the notion of how many times a character has seen things go one way, compared to the number of times they’ve gone another. If a character builds up years of experience with something being true and then encounters one time it is not true, they will tend to treat that single false time as an exception to the rule. It would take as many false responses as there had been true ones to counter the balance.
Context is a Sneaky Thing
Context is in a constant state of flux. If something has always proven true in all contexts up to this point then one is not conscious of entering a whole new context. Rather, as we move in and out of contexts, a truism that was ALWAYS true may become mostly true, sometimes true, or no longer true at all. It may have an increasing or decreasing frequency of proving true or may tend toward being false for a while, only to tend toward being true again later.
The important thing for your characters is to recognize that they (like us) are just trying to discover what the truth is so they can make the best possible choices for themselves. It is the difference in personal experience that leads to all dramatic (and real world) conflict.
To make your characters more human and to provide them with valid reasons for their actions and perspectives, you need to tell your readers or audience not where each character is coming from, but how they got to that belief system to begin with.
Let me now add a short addendum to this excerpt from the Dramatica Book….
Truth is a process, not a conclusion. If you have ever dipped into Zen, you realize that you cannot fully understand what something is unless you become it, and yet if you do, you lose the awareness of what it is as seen from the outside.
Capital “T” truth is perpetually elusive, as described in the saying, “The Tao that can be spoken is not the Eternal Tao.” Or, in less cryptic terms, if you define something, you have missed the point because nothing stands alone from the rest of the universe and cannot be fully defined apart from it.
The key to open-mindedness and problem solving is to decalcify your mind, to make it limber enough to perceive and explore alternative points of view without immediately abandoning the point of view you currently hold.
That is the nature of stories – when a main character’s belief system is challenged by an influence character who represents an alternative truth. The entire passionate “heart line” of a story exists to examine the relative value of each perspective, and the message of a story is the author’s statement that, based on the author’s own experience or special knowledge, in this particular instance, one view is better than the other for solving this particular problem.
There is no right or wrong inherently. It all depends upon the context, which is never constant. The philosopher David Hume believed that truth was transient: as long as something worked, it was true, and when it failed to work it was no longer true.
And so, the answer to the question posed at the beginning of this article, “What is truth?” can only be “truth is our best understanding of the moment.”
For a tangential topic, you may with to read my article, “The False Narrative,” in which I explore how to recognize, dismantle and/or create false narratives in fiction and in the real world.
One way to improve your writing is to look at a good story and learn from it. Another way it to see what’s wrong with a bad story and think about how to fix it. But you seldom see writers looking at good stories to see how they might be improved. Yet, that’s exactly what we’re going to do here.
I wrote the following article back when the original Jurassic Park movie first came out, just as we were finishing up work on our theory of narrative structure. We figured that anyone can point out the flaws in a bad story and see the shining gems in a good one. But if we we could show how to improve good stories, then writers might pay attention to our ideas about dramatics. And so, I penned a whole series of Creative Criticisms where I used our narrative concepts to do just that.
Here’s the first article in that series:
Building a Better Dinosaur
Jurassic Park is wonderfully entertaining. The concepts are intriguing, the visuals stunning. Everything it does, it does well. Unfortunately, it doesn’t do enough. There are parts missing, little bits of story DNA that are needed to complete the chain, and these problems go right back to the book the movie is based on.
The structure of a story, is not medium dependent. What works in one medium will work in all others. Storytelling, however, must vary significantly to take advantage of the strengths and avoid the weaknesses inherent in any format. Jurassic Park makes this storytelling translation very well, but the flawed dramatics were lifted intact, shackling the movie, just like the book, with a Pterodactyl hanging `round its neck.
So how can we avoid being blinded by great storytelling to see beyond it into the underlying dramatics that are working against an every more powerful story? To find out, let’s lay a little groundwork about how the structure of stories works. I’ll keep it to a minimum because, after all, writers aren’t narrative theorists and most don’t want to be.
First up, to the audience the message of the story is about an ethical or philosophic conflict such as greed vs. generosity that is at the heart of A Christmas Carol by Dickens. It is this message conflict the gives the story meaning beyond action, pathos, and good storytelling. To paraphrase Obi Wan Kenobi, it is the force that gives binds the story together.
For that message to work, this conflict shows up both in the overall story in which everyone is involved and in the personal story the Main Character. So, in A Christmas Carol, the overall story is about Bob Cratchet’s family, and whether or not Tiny Tim will live. In the personal story, it is about Scrooge’s belief it is every man for himself, and that no one is obligated to help others – in fact, it is a bad idea.
Because the message conflict is reflected both in the big picture and in the small picture, success or failure in a the attempt to achieve the goal is dependent on whether or not the Main Character is able to overcome his or her personal demons, often through a leap of faith just before the climax. So, to be dramatically strong a story must explore an the problem both objectively and subjectively, weigh one side of the conflict against the other, and then show the final result of choosing one side over the other.
Jurassic Park attempts to do this but does not quite succeed because its exploration of the personal side of the problem is lacking. The issue at the heart of the story is order (control) vs. chaos. Hammond believes you can build a system that is safe, Ian Malcolm (the chaos expert) responds that “life will find a way” – in other words, you can’t achieve complete control. Things go wrong at Jurassic Park because unexpected interference with the system comes out of left field – chaos. This is well represented in the overall plot.
At the other level, Dr. Grant is the Main Character of the story – the one who is supposed to grapple with the personal aspect of the message conflict, but though the groundwork is laid, it is not fully developed and never comes into play at the end as it should.
As the film opens, the entire first scene with Grant at the archaeological dig illustrates his displeasure with chaos. All the elements are there: a disruptive boy, a randomly sensitive computer, a helicopter that comes out of nowhere and ruins the dig. All of these things clearly show Grant’s frustration and displeasure with Chaos, but they don’t directly show the counterpoint: if you are against chaos, you like things orderly – you strive for order.
As a result, these events come off more as simple irritations that anyone might feel, rather than establishing Grant’s personal issue that he so prefers an orderly life that he seeks to prevent the forces of chaos from entering his realm. Alas, without any direct allusion to Order being his primary concern, Dr. Grant comes off simply as finding disruptions inconvenient, faulty equipment annoying, and kids as both.
Yet just stating that Dr. Grant shares the message conflict with the overall story is obviously not enough. The relationship between his view of the problem and the overall story view of the problem is what explores the concept, makes the argument, and allows the Main Character to grow. Ultimately, it is the differential between the two that brings a Main Character to suspect the error of their ways and make a positive leap of faith and change. They see the problem outside themselves, then find it inside themselves. They change the inside, and the outside follows suit.
What does this mean for Jurassic Park? In the movie as it is, Doctor Grant’s attitude toward John Hammond’s ability to control the dinosaurs is one of skepticism, not because he promotes order but because he is wary of chaos. Grant simply agrees with Ian Malcolm, the mathematician. This makes the same point from two characters. But Grant’s function should not be to sound a warning about Chaos just as Malcolm does, but to promote even more control to ensure Order. Only this point of view would be consistent with his feelings toward the children, and why he doesn’t want any of his own.
The following scene rewrites the dialog of Grant, Hammond, and Malcolm to illustrate how the overall story conflict between Hammond and Malcolm regarding order and chaos could have easily been reflected at a personal left in Grant, who initially favors order above all things, but later (should have) come to embrace chaos and thereby changed.
How can you be sure your creations won’t escape?
Each compound is completely encircled with electric fences.
How many fences?
Just one, but it is 10,000 volts.
That’s not enough….
I assure you, even a T-Rex respects 10,000 volts!
No, I mean not enough fences. It’s been my experience that Dr. Malcom is right. You can’t count on things going the way you expect them. You need back-ups to your back-ups. Leave a soft spot and chaos will find it. Put three fences around each compound, each with a separate power source and then you can bring people in here.
That’s not the point at all! Chaos will happen no matter how many fences you build. In fact, the more you try to control a situation, the greater the potential that chaos will bring the whole thing down.
In the above scene, Grant stresses the need for even MORE control than Hammond used. This clearly establishes his aversion to giving in to chaos. But Ian illustrates the difference in their points of view by stating that the greater the control you exercise, the more you tighten the spring of chaos.
What would this mean for the middle of the story? Plenty. Once Grant and the children are lost in the open with the thunder lizards, he might learn gradually that one must allow chaos to reach an equilibrium with order. Several close encounters with the dinos might result in minor successes and failures determined by applying whether an orderly or chaotic approach is taken. This should have been Grant’s learning experience in order to reach a point of change at the climax.
As it stands, Dr. Grant simply learns to care about the children. But what has that really changed in him at the core? What did he learn? And how does that relate to the message conflict in the overall story?
Would it not have been more dramatically pleasing to have his experiences with the children teach him how chaos is not just a disruptive element, but sometimes an essential component of life? And would it not make sense for someone who has spent his whole life imagining the way dinosaurs lived to be surprised by the truth when he sees them in person?
What a wonderful opportunity this was to show how the orderly interactions he had imagined for his beloved beasts are anything but orderly in the real world. So many opportunities to teach him the value of chaos, yet all we get is “They DO travel in herds… I was right!” Well, that line is a nice place to start, especially if you spend the rest of the story showing how wrong he was about everything else. Truly a good place to start growing from.
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the personal story line is the manner in which they all escape in the end. Grant and the kids are sealed in the control room, but the raptors are right outside. The girl struggles to get the computer up so they can get the door locked. This of course, merely delays the Raptors until the helpless humans can escape into another Raptor attack. Then out of nowhere, T-Rex conveniently barges in, kills the Raptors and allows the humans to escape? Why? Why then? Was T-Rex just waiting in the wings for his cue?
Let’s propose one possible ending that would have tied in chaos in the overall story with Dr. Grant’s personal issue of order in the Subjective story and set up the entire dramatic framework for his growth as a character in a leap of faith.
Imagine that earlier in the story, when the power went down at the beginning, it only affected some of the compounds, rather than all. So though dinos are roaming in all sections of the park, they can’t get from one section to another.
Near the end, Dr. Grant and the kids make it back to the control room, barely escaping the T-Rex who is trapped by one of the electrified section fences. In quick action, they climb over the fence on a tree knocked down by the Tyrannosaurus. The Raptors are at the door of the control room, the girl goes to the computer to lock the door. She locks it, then tells Grant she can bring up the rest of the fences.
As she works, Grant sees a painting on the wall that shows two dinosaurs fighting. As he watches the girl work with the painting behind her and the raptors at the door, we realize he is thinking about how he and the kids were saved earlier because a dino attacked the one that was about to kill them. Grant looks back and forth and then makes the connection. “No!” he yells. “Take them down, take them all down!” The girl is incredulous and refuses but he insists and she cut the power on all of the fences, expecting the worst.
Just as before, the Raptors break in, the humans escape onto the dino skeletons. NOW, when T-Rex comes in to save the day, it is solely because of Dr. Grant’s decision to cut the power to the fences allowing the T-Rex to get into this sector. Having learned his lesson about the benefits of chaos and the folly of order, he is a changed man. The author’s proof of this correct decision is their salvation courtesy of T-Rex.
Grant and the kids make for the helicopter. Now, when Grant suddenly gets cuddly with the kids, we understand his feeling about having children has changed because of his changed mind regarding keeping order and shutting out chaos. As a result, this removes the obstacle that stood between Grant and his love interest and kept them from being together – the desire to have children. Grant saves the kids, gets the girl, and equilibrium is restored on the island.
So, as you see, just a few small changes in a story, even a good one, can power boost its impact and make the whole thing resonate. Now our narrative theory has even more suggestions for Building a Better Dinosaur, but, leapin’ lizards, don’t you think this is enough for one Constructive Criticism?
Now all the concepts in this article are drawn from our Dramatica Story Structure Software, based on our narrative theory. You can try it risk free for 90 days and see if you can improve your novel or screenplay as well. Just click here for details or to download the demo.
As writers, we all know that characters need drive or their actions will come across as unmotivated. But what is drive, and where does it come from?
At a minimum, every character needs a reason to explain the choices they make and the things they do. For example, the ex-con who has made a new life going straight takes on one more job because his daughter needs a surgery he can’t afford. Or, a mother of three who is belittled and abused by her husband falls deeply in love with a man she met in a chance encounter but can’t bring herself to run away with him because she was abandoned by her own mother as a child.
These motivations are enough to satisfy the basic need to understand what drives each character, yet the reasons given still seem unrealistically simple, superficial, or just too pat.
So how do you design drives for your characters that ring true to the complex web of conflicting feelings that form the motive forces each of us grapple with in everyday life? For that, you need to dig down beneath the reasons a character responds and acts as they do in order to discover their justifications.
Justifications are the tangled up knots of experience that determine both our emotional responses to life situations as well as the courses of actions we think are best. Like a ball of snarled rubber bands, justification creates a lot of potential, and if something starts to cut into it, sometimes it slowly unravels, and other times it snaps explosively.
The creation of Justification in characters is the purpose of and reason for Backstory. The dismantling of Justification is the purpose and function of the story itself. The gathering of information necessary to dismantle Justification is the purpose and function of the Scenes, with every Act completing a major new epiphany. It is the nature of the specific Justifications explored in a particular story that determines the story’s message.
Understanding justification is essential to understanding the dynamics that drive story structure. Fortunately this is not as hard as it might sound as we do this intuitively every day. We all justify, for better or worse, and then subconsciously add the results of our latest use of the process into our experience base, slightly changing our view of the world every time we do it.
So my purpose here is not to tell you something you don’t already know, but to elevate that process from automatic to intentional. In this way, you can more accurately and powerfully sculpt your characters, what drives them, and how that leads to the behaviors they exhibit.
Technically speaking, Justification is a state of mind wherein the Subjective view differs from the Objective view. Okay, fine. But how about in plain English!!!! Very well… When someone sees things differently than they are, they are Justifying. This can happen either because the mind draws a wrong conclusion or assumes, or because things have actually changed in a way that is no longer consistent with a held view.
All of this comes down to cause and effect. For example, suppose you have a family with a husband, wife and young son. Here is a sample backstory of how a particular little boy might develop a particular justification that could plague him in later life….
The husband works at a produce stand. Every Friday he gets paid. Also every Friday a new shipment of fresh beets comes in. So, every Friday night, he comes home with the beets and the paycheck. The paycheck is never quite enough to cover the bills and this is weighing heavily on his wife. Still, she knows her husband works hard, so she tries to keep her feelings to herself and devotes her attention to cooking the beets for her husband and her son.
Nevertheless, she cannot hold out forever, and every Friday evening at some point while they eat, she and her husband get in an argument. Of course, like most people who are trying to hold back the REAL cause of her feelings, she picks on other issues, so the arguments are all different. Their son, therefore, cannot see an immediate cause for the problem so he desperately looks for one so he can anticipate the problem and either avoid it or at least be prepared – something we all do called “problem-solving.”
Now the child might come to feel that Friday nights are gonna be bad or that dinner is a horrible time, but in our story, he casts his eyes down at his plate of beets so as to shut out the arguing, and this becomes the common factor he fixates on as his canary in the mine – a harbinger of a fight to come. And, of course, all of this is going on in his heart subconsciously, below the level of his conscious awareness.
With this backstory, we have laid out a series of cause and effect relationships that lead to the child establishing a justification – a connection between the way his parents fighting makes him feel and the serving of beets. With this potential we have wound up the spring of the dramatic mechanism for our story, and now we are ready to begin the fore story to see how that tension creates problems.
The Story Begins: The young boy, now a grown adult with a wife and child of his own, sits down to dinner with his family. He begins to get belligerent and antagonistic. His wife does not know why he is suddenly acting this way or what she may have inadvertently done to trigger his behavior. In fact, later, he himself cannot say why he was so upset. But we, the readers or audience, know it is because his wife served beets.
Looking toward the backstory, it is easy to see that from the young boy’s knowledge of the situation when he was a child, the common element that he fixated on whenever his parents argued was the serving of beets. They never argued about the money directly, and that would probably have been beyond his ken anyway. And so, he established a subconscious correlation- a justification – that associated angry interchanges with the presence of beets. And if there is no argument, he starts one, which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Certainly, this makes no sense to the conscious mind – one would never accept nor act upon such a ridiculous association. But the subconscious does not reason, it just associates. And therefore, connections made in such a way are simply accepted as being truisms.
Obviously, it is not stupidity that leads to such misconceptions, but lack of accurate information. The problem is, we have no way of knowing if we have the proper information or not, for we can never determine how much we do not know or what we may have unintentionally misconstrued. Justification is nothing more than a human trait by which we see a repetitive proximity between two items or between an item and a process and assume a causal relationship, as in “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” or “one bad apple spoils the bunch.”
But why is this so important to writing stories? In fact, the purpose of stories is to shine a light on these erroneous connections that can get stuck in our motivations, just as Scrooge is shown that his world view is in error by having the ghosts expose the roots of his justifications and their ramifications on others. Stories show us a greater Objective truth that is beyond our limited Subjective view. They exist to convince us that if we feel something is a certain way, even based on extensive experience, it is possible that it really is not that way at all, at least in this particular kind of situation. And the more we consume stories, as readers or audience members, the more skillful we become at questioning our most strongly held assumptions and beliefs, leading to a more clear understanding of our lives, and therefore to a better ability to navigate them.
But not all assumptions of cause and effect are wrong. In fact, most of the time we get it right, seeing repeated connections over and over again and accurately accepting that there is a direct connection between one set of circumstances and what happens next.
Characters, whether their assumptions are right or wrong, will be tested by a new set of circumstances that make it appear as if a given earlier assumption is actually wrong. But are they truly wrong or do they just appear to be wrong? That is the dilemma that leads to a character facing a leap of faith – to stick with the tried and true that currently seems to be failing, or to embrace a new understanding that seems to explain more but has never been tried.
The question here is that in our lives, our understanding is not only limited by past misconceptions, but by lack of accurate information about the present as well. And stories are all about sending a message that in this particular kind of scenario, trust your beliefs OR in this particular scenario, abandon your beliefs.
“Keeping the faith” describes the feeling that drives characters who refuse to change their long-held views., even in the face of major contradiction, holding on to one’s views and dismissing the apparent reality as an illusion or falsehood.
“Seeing the light” describes the feeling that drives characters who ultimately embrace a new view, even in the face of potential disaster, accepting a new reality and recasting the previous belief as either having always been in error, or at least not being accurate right now.
At the climax of a story, the need to make a decision between remaining steadfast in one’s faith or altering it is presented to every main character. Each must make that choice. And as a result of that choice, the character will succeed or fail.
If we decide with the best available evidence and trust our feelings we will succeed, right? Not necessarily. Success or failure is just the author’s way of saying she agrees or disagrees with the choice the character made. So, just making a leap of faith does not, in and of itself, guarantee success. Rather, a story leads a character to a point at which that choice – to change or remain steadfast in one’s beliefs – can no longer be put off. Circumstances are such that failing to make the choice at all leads to certain disaster. The only way to have a chance to succeed is to choose to either stay the course, or to set off in a new direction.
In the original Star Wars movie, for example, Luke Skywalker is ultimately faced with trusting in the targeting computer or in himself and turning off the computer to rely on his own skills in destroying the Death Star. He turns off the computer, trusting in himself, and destroys the Death Star. But that is only one of four possible outcomes.
Imagine if Luke had made the the choice to turn off his targeting computer (trusting in the force), dropped his bombs, and missed the target, Darth blows him up and the Death Star obliterates the rebels… how would we feel? Sure you could write it that way, but would you want to? Perhaps! If you made Star Wars as a government sponsored entertainment in a fascist regime, that might very WELL be the way you would “want” to end it!
But there are still two other options. Suppose Luke left the targeting computer on and succeeded, or if he turned it off and failed. Any of these outcomes makes sense, but each sends different kind of message. And that, as was said in the beginning, is the purpose of stories – to convey a message that a particular believe is a good or bad one to maintain in the given situation that this particular story explores. And you can do that by showing the steadfast choice succeeds or fails, or that change leads to success or failure, each creating a different kind of message.
In summary then, the point of stories is to provide a message about the best way to respond to a specific given problem – either to stick with one’s long-held beliefs or to adopt a new way of looking at things. Backstory explains how a belief was formed through the process of justification. Over the course of the story, circumstances continually build pressure on your main character to change that belief, eventually arriving at a climax that forces a choice because failure is certain if one does not choose at all between the old belief and the new.
By this point, there is equal evidence supporting the original belief as supporting the new one. And so, the main character must make a leap of faith and choose to stick to remain steadfast in its views or to adopt a new view. Either way could lead to success or failure, depending on the flavor of message you wish to impart.
In conclusion then, think about the process of justification when you consider where your characters’ drives come from, how that creates problems for them in the here and now, and the message you want to send. The more you become familiar with how justification works, the more you can take control of the affect your story will have on your readers or audience, and the more adept you may become in making solid choices in your own life as well.
Author’s note: Most of these concepts come from the Dramatica theory of narrative structure I developed along with my writing partner, Chris Huntley. They became the basis for our Dramatica Story Structuring Software. Click the link to try it risk-free.
Most writers are not story theorists, and don’t want to be. Still, an understanding of the way stories work can help support a writer’s instincts to make sure a flawed structure won’t get in the way of the creativity.
So what is story structure? It is a map of the way people go about solving different kinds of problems, and a message by the author as to which methods are better than others.
Where did story structure come from? Well, for thirty thousand years or so we’ve been telling stories, but nobody every really invented story structure. Rather, story structure just kind of emerged as a byproduct of the effort to describe how individuals deal with problems and how they interact with others when dealing with problems that affect more than one person.
Story structure first appeared as the conventions of storytelling – certain truisms about the way people think and feel and they behave with one other. These truisms might not have covered every real world situation, but they were useful enough as general guidelines for crafting a story that would feel real to readers or audience members and make a clear point about personal choices and behavior in general.
Now a lot of writers wanted something a little more tangible – something they could rely on as a framework for a story that really worked. In addition, a few theorist-types like Aristotle, Jung and Campbell, were interested in seeing if there was some sort of common thread in structure, perhaps an overarching perspective in which it all made sense, or at the very least a way of better connecting what was going on in stories with real life issues and how people dealt (or even should deal) with them.
These kinds of inquires led to the development of everything from the concept of a three-act structure to the “hero with one thousand faces” to the famous and nearly ubiquitous “hero’s journey.”
Some twenty-five years ago, Chris Huntley and I developed our own model of story structure based on one new idea no one had ever proposed before called the Story Mind – as if the story itself had its own psychology, in which every character represents a facet of that larger group mind.
In our research we came to believe that every individual has certain common traits we all share, such as Reason and Skepticism. And we each use all of them to try and solve our personal problems. But when we gather together in groups to solve problems of common concern, we begin to specialize so that one person emerges as the Voice of Reason for the group, and another comes to be the group’s resident Skeptic.
In this way, the group can get greater depth or resolution on how to go about solving complex problems than if all the members worked as general practitioners, all trying to do all the jobs, each and every one.
It was our feeling this sort of thing naturally occurs whenever we gather toward a common purpose because, in a sense, it is a good survival trait for the group as a whole, and therefore for everyone in that group.
Well, there’s a lot more to our theory of story structure than that, but armed with this initial breakthrough concept, we spent about three years trying to build a model of story structure. And the end result was an interactive model of all the different kinds of traits we all share, both large and very small, and how they hang together. Those, we felt, were the elements of structure, and we created a kind of periodic table of story structure to show their dramatic properties and how they all related to one another.
And beyond that, we discovered that there were dynamics built right into the conventions of story structure that could only be seen if you looked at it as a Story Mind. We cataloged those and how the whole structure was really a very flexible affair in which truisms were no longer needed because you could create very specific structures for just about any issue you might like to explore as an author.
Eventually, we converted those relationships into a software-based Story Engine in which you could make choices about the kinds of dramatics you wanted to put forth in your story, and the Story Engine would actually be able to determine the ramifications of each choice on the other dramatics in your story. Ultimately, we used the story engine as the heart of a new story structuring software product called Dramatica. We got a patent for it, in fact! I was very proud.
Now, if you own the Dramatica software, you’ve probably noticed it presents a flat chart called the “Theme Browser” that shows how dramatic subjects relate to one another. Though it isn’t in the software, there is also a 3D projection of the flat chart that looks something like a Rubik’s Cube on steroids, or a super-complex 3-D chess board. You can download a free copy of it in PDF.
The flat chart provides a map of the elements that make up stories and the 3D chart is the best way to understand the “winding up” process of dramatic tension of your story. Essentially, when you run into troubles in life, you try one kind of a solution after another – one different item in the flat chart after another until you find one that works. In the 3D chart, this is like moving the dramatic element around in a Rubik’s Cube manner.
Whenever you try one solution instead of another, you not only bring the new one to the front but simultaneously push the old one into the background or onto the back burner. In the 3D chart, we call that “flipping and rotating” because sometimes you flip positions of dramatic items and other times you rotate them to change the order in which they are applied. After all, some problems are caused by using the wrong process and other problems are caused by using the right processes but in the wrong sequence.
The Story Engine at the heart of the Dramatica software tracks all of those elements to make sure no dramatic “rules” are broken. What’s a Dramatic Rule? As an analogy, you can twist and turn a Rubik’s Cube, but you can’t pluck one of the little cubes out of it and swap it’s position with another little cube. In other words, you can create all kinds of patterns, but you can’t break structure. Similarly in stories, you can create all kinds of dramatic patterns, but you can’t just drop story elements wherever you want – they have to MOVE into place and take others with them or the structure won’t hold up because it doesn’t match the way our own minds work.
When you answer questions about your story in Dramatica, you are expressing your dramatic intent – the dramatic pattern you want to create for your audience. That says something about the final arrangement you want with the “colors” in the Rubik’s Cube of your story.
Every time you make a choice, you are saying, “I want my story to look like this, as opposed to that.” You are choosing just as much what you DON’T want in your story as what you do.
The choices are cumulative – they pile up. The more you make, the more Dramatica’s Story Engine winds up. Your ongoing choices start to become limited as to which options are still available, not by arbitrary and rigid rules, but because some choices or combination of choices simply prevent other options from being possible in that particular story if the structure is to be true to our own way of thinking as human beings.
Imagine – what would happen if you put any combinations of things into a story without limits? Then anything goes. That means there is no good structure or bad structure, in fact there would be no structure at all, just a heap of conflicting dramatic messages.
So, what is structure? Structure is nothing more than making a point, either logistically or emotionally or both. Many stories don’t need structure because they are not about making a larger point or having a message, but are designed to be experiences without any greater overall meaning.
We call experiential structures “Tales” and greater meaning structures “Stories.” So, if you have an unbroken chain of events that makes sense coupled with a series of emotional experiences that don’t violate the way people really feel, that’s all you need to have a complete Tale structure. But, to have a complete Story structure, each event and experience is part of an overall pattern that becomes clear by the time the story is over. There is nothing better or worse about a Tale compared to a Story, but authors of Stories take upon themselves a more demanding rigor.
Historically, it has been easy to miss a step in the events of a tale or a beat in the emotional journey. And, it has been even harder to ensure that each of those dramatic moments contributes to the greater meaning in a story. That’s why Dramatica’s Story Engine was built –not to inspire or help you build your story’s world per se, but to ensure that whatever you want to write about, and whether you want to tell it as a tale or a story, the underlying structure will be sound, complete, and tuned to just the message you want to convey to your readers or audience.
You can try out the Story Engine for free! The demo version of Dramatica is fully functional, other than saving your work. So if you want to try some of the questions and play around with the other tools, you can download the demo here and get everything the Story Engine has to offer except for saving your work to continue with it in later sessions.
Honestly, you may find Dramatica a little daunting, as it is extremely powerful and wide ranging with all kinds of features and functions. And, it is built on our theory of story structure, which (though elegant) is also extensive and detailed. Nonetheless, my feelings are that the more you learn about story structure in Dramatica , the more you have improved your ability to visualize and actualize your story. So, my advice is to give it a try for free. All you have to lose is a little itsy bitsy crumb of time, but what you have to gain is a much deeper and powerful understanding of stories and how to structure them.
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