At the core of a story’s message is a very simple issue – whether the author is telling us it is better to be like the main character or not. This is usually thought of as the moral of the story and is proven to the readers or audience by how the main character fares after making a choice or taking a leap of faith at the climax.
For characters like Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, the message is that it is better to change one’s attitude toward others and adopt a new way of thinking. If you do, things will work out better. But for other characters, such as in Field of Dreams or Rocky, the message is to stick by your beliefs because that’s the only way to solve your problems.
Sometimes change is good, as with Scrooge. But imagine if Ray had given up on building the ball field or Rocky Balboa had determined there was no way to win and he shouldn’t continue to try.
Stories can be written about characters who change or about characters who don’t. That’s the first part of the message. The second part is what happens to the character in the end as a result of their choice to change or not.
This results in four possibilities:
The main character changes and things work out for the better.
The main character changes and things work out for the worse.
The main character remains steadfast and things work out for the better.
The main character remains steadfast and things work out for the worse.
Each of the four combinations provides a different kind of message about changing or sticking to your beliefs. So far, so good. But now you need to get that message across to your readers or audience.
The first part of conveying your message is to be clear about the nature of the human quality or thought pattern that your moral is about. That aspect of your main character that defines him, just as Scrooge’s lack of concern for his fellow man is the issue at the heart of him. How you do this can be subtle or straight out, but by the time the moment of choice is upon your main character, your audience or reader needs to absolutely and with total clarity know what that issue is or your message will be unclear.
The second part of conveying your message is to show that as a result of his or her choice, your main character is better off or worse off than they were. This element of your message has two components:
Did they achieve the goal?
Are they in an emotionally better place than they were.
For example, suppose you have a story in which a character changes his beliefs, achieves the goal, and is elated. That’s fine, and the message is that whatever his issue was, it was good he changed his point of view. But change is not always good, so in another story a character might change his beliefs, still achieve the goal, but be miserable in the end because he hadn’t resolved his anguish or he had to take on an emotional burden to accomplish his quest. For example, in Avengers: Infinity War, the villain Thanos has to kill the person he loves the most to accomplish his goal, and this leaves him logistically satisfied yet emotionally devastated.
On the opposite side, a character might remain steadfast in his beliefs, fail in the goal but find personal salvation or true happiness in the end. Or a character might remain steadfast, succeed in the goal but be left personally raw. An example of this last combination can be seen in Silence of the Lambs in which Clarice Starling is successful in saving the senator’s daughter, but could not let go of the screaming lambs in her memory, as pointed out in the end by Hannibal Lecter (“Tell me, Clarice,” are the lambs still screaming?”) This is why the ending music over her graduation ceremony is so somber – she achieved the goal but could not let go of her angst.
And, of course, you can have the quintessential tragedy in which a change or a steadfast character fails and the goal and is miserable in the end, such as in Hamelt, or the penultimate feel good story in which a change or steadfast character both succeeds in the goal and find (or holds onto) great happiness, true love, etc., as in the original Star Wars movie (Episode IV)
The point here is that change, in and of itself, is neither good nor bad until you see the results of that change. And also, a character does not have to change to grow, but can grow in his or her resolve.
And finally, the ramifications don’t have to be cut and dried: all good or all bad. Rather, by treating the goal and the emotional outcome separately, you have the opportunity to temper your message with bitter sweet and sweet bitter endings as well, thereby creating a more complex message for your readers or viewers.
Having a core concept for your story before you write will provide you with a creative beacon – a lighthouse by which to guide your creative efforts so they stay on course to your ultimate purpose: a completed novel.
While this seems fairly simple, it can be a lot harder than it looks. It is the rare writer who has a focused concise story concept right from the beginning. Many discover the essence of their novel during the development process or even as they write.
At the beginning of the story development process, many writers find themselves with a collection of story elements they’d like to include but no overarching concept.
Without a core concept, the first inclination is to try to pull all the good ideas into a single all-encompassing story. Problem is, people think in topics more easily than they think in narratives. And while all the material may belong to the same subject matter category, more often than not it doesn’t really belong in the same story.
Still, no one likes to abandon a good idea – after all, those aren’t that easy to come by. And so, writers stop coming up with new ideas as their attention turns more and more toward figuring out how to connect together everything they already have.
This can create an every growing spiral of structural complexity in the attempt to fit every notion and concept into a single unifying whole. And before you know it, your inspiration and enthusiasm have both run dry to be replaced by creative frustration with a candy coating of intellectual effort that is not unlike trying to build a single meaningful picture from the pieces of several different puzzles.
To determine the central vision for your novel try these techniques. First, shift your focus from what your story needs, and ask yourself what you need. More precisely, consider why you want to write this story in the first place. What is it that excites you most about this subject matter? Is it a character, a plot line, a thematic message or topic, or just a genre or setting or timeframe or…?
Create a list of all the elements you have been pondering to possibly include in your story – put it on paper so you can easily see them all at once. Next, considering your own personal interests, prioritize that list,putting the items you most want to include at the top and those less compelling ones at the bottom.
(Tip: sometimes it is hard to pick the most interesting and it is easier to start at the bottom of the list with the least interesting and work up!)
Now, block the bottom half of the list to see only the top items. These are the aspects of your story that are most inspiring to you and represent the heart of your story. Think about them as a group and see if you can perceive a common thread.
This common thread is called a log line. Log lines are like the short descriptions of a program you see in cable or satellite television listings. As examples, here are the log lines for two stories of my own:
Snow Sharks (Don’t Eat Red Snow) – A group of rich teenage ski-bums are terrorized by escaped sharks that have been genetically altered by the U.S. government to act as mobile land mines in potential arctic wars.
House of W.A.C.S. – In 1942, this cross between Animal House and The Dirty Dozen follows one of the first groups of young women in the newly created Women’s Army Corps as they learn to work together as a team to thwart a Nazi fifth column and protect a crucial war factory.
The top two examples are plot-oriented, but many novels may be much more concerned with character growth or a thematic message or even both.
For example, the log line for “A Christmas Carol” might be:
An unhappy and miserly man has isolated himself from an emotional connection with the suffering of humanity as a shield against his own childhood pain, but through the intervention of three ghosts who force him to confront his past, present and future, he ultimately see how he has victimized both himself and others, repents, and seeks to make amends.
Naturally, you don’t have to stick to one sentence in your log line – that could be an exercise in futility and put your attention more on form than purpose. The point is simply to boil down the heart of your story to its essence with the least possible number of words.
In this manner your collection of potential story elements begins to take on a unifying identity – a sense your story’s world, who’s in it, what happens to them and what it all means – all at a high-level overview.
If your material is too limited or sketchy to get a grip on it, just describe what excites you about your potential story, rather than what’s in it, such as:
“I’m fascinated with the notion of an archeologist finding a modern device embedded in the ruins of an ancient civilization.”
You really don’t need more than that to center yourself on what you’d like to write about and, so armed, you will much more easily be able to pick and choose which ideas to include and which to exclude from your novel in progress. And, it will also inform your Muse as to where future inspiration should focus.
If, on the other hand, your wealth of story ideas is so wide-ranging or diffuse to easily see the thread, gather these ideas into groups organized by having a common connection and put each on a separate sheet of paper.
Then, try writing writing a separate log line for each group. Each of these sub-log lines will help focus a different part of what you’d like your story to be. So, rather than trying to find the core directly from your original list, try to see the central concept outlined by your collection of log lines – essential a master log line that takes all the sub-lines into account and finds an overarching concept in them as a collection.
By applying some or all of these techniques, you’ll should be able to define the essences of your story sufficiently to pick and choose which inspirations and concepts to include or exclude and to direct your ongoing story development so all the elements work together and generate in the reader a sense of a unified whole.
This technique is one of the first steps in my StoryWeaver software. Click the ad below to learn more…
One of the most powerful opportunities of the novel format is the ability to describe what a character is thinking. In movies or stage plays (with exceptions) you must show what the character is thinking through action and/or dialog. But in a novel, you can just come out and say it.
For example, in a movie, you might say:
John walks slowly to the window and looks out at the park bench where he last saw Sally. His eyes fill with tears. He bows his head and slowly closes the blinds.
But in a novel you might write:
John walked slowly to the window, letting his gaze drift toward the park bench where he last saw Sally. Why did I let her go, he thought. I wanted so much to ask her to stay. Saddened, he reflected on happier times with her – days of more contentment than he ever imagined he could feel.
The previous paragraph uses two forms of expressing a character’s thoughts. One, is the direct quote of the thought, as if it were dialog spoken internally to oneself. The other is a summary and paraphrase of what was going on in the character’s head.
Most novels are greatly enhanced by stepping away from a purely objective narrative perspective, and drawing the reader into the minds of the character’s themselves.
Over the course of the story, your reader/audience has come to know your characters and to feel for them. The story doesn’t end when your characters and their relationships reach a climax. Rather, the reader/audience will want to know the aftermath – how it turned out for each character and each relationship. In addition, the audience needs a little time to say goodbye – to let the character walk off into the sunset or to mourn for them before the story ends.
This is in effect the conclusion, the wrap-up. After everything has happened to your characters, after the final showdown with their respective demons, what are they like? How have they changed? If a character began the story as a skeptic, does it now have faith? If they began the story full of hatred for a mother that abandoned them, have they now made revelations to the effect that she was forced to do this, and now they no longer hate? This is what you have to tell the audience, how their journeys changed them, have the resolved their problems, or not?
And in the end, this constitutes a large part of your story’s message. It is not enough to know if a story ends in success or failure, but also if the characters are better off emotionally or plagued with even greater demons, regardless of whether or not the goal was achieved.
You can show what happens to your characters directly, through a conversation by others about them, or even in a post-script on each that appears after the story is over or in the ending credits of a movie.
How you do this is limited only by your creative inspiration, but make sure you review each character and each relationship and provide at least a minimal dismissal for each.
When a child comes up with a false reason for some small transgression, we know he is just making an excuse to avoid punishment or to side-step a negative emotional response. Adults continue to make excuses; they just do it in a far more sophisticated way. What’s more, we often make excuses to ourselves, convincing ourselves that a particular course of action is best, even though deep down we know it really isn’t.
So how and why do we play these mental games? How exactly does this work in our own minds, and how should it work in the minds of our characters if their motivations are to come off as those of real people?
The answers to these questions lie in in a mental process called justification. Justification describes the internal mechanisms we use to shift the truth of a situation in order to create a more favorable interpretation. This can cover up a mistake, but it can also help us find a way around restrictions that really aren’t absolute.
The tale of the Gordian Knot is a good illustration how justification can uncover a solution to a seemingly unsolvable problem. In the story, Alexander the Great encounters an intricately tied knot where the ends are worked inside so there is no apparent way to part the two ropes. Legend foretold that whomever could part the ropes was destined to become the emperor of all Asia. After examining the knot, Alexander simply drew his sword and cut the knot in half, thereby separating the two ropes, since there were no stated restrictions on exactly how the ropes needed to be parted.
Today, we call this “thinking outside the box,” meaning that we put aside the context normally used to frame an idea and look at it from a whole new perspective. But how does this work in stories? This exact same technique was employed in Raiders of the Lost Ark when the assassin comes at Indy with a sword and our hero just pulls his gun and shoots him.
The point here is that while justification can be used to make excuses, it can also open one’s mind to new solutions to previously unsolvable problems. But not all justifications are just about shifting perspective about a current situation. These same techniques can be employed when considering how a situation may change in time.
For example, of the three little pigs, the who built his house of brick put in a lot more work than was needed for any current problem, but considered what might be needed for an unknown problem in the future. Every squirrel that buries nuts for the winter, rather than eating them all now is justifying, and the story of the Grasshopper and the Ant (google it) illustrated the folly of paying attention only to the here and how.
In real life, every retirement fund or medical insurance policy is a justification that actually creates difficulties in the present by limiting resources in expectation of a future need that may never actually materialize.
Of course not all justifications are of such life-changing import. Imagine, for example, a person, we’ll call him Joe, who has a friend come to visit for the weekend. Joe has a great time with the visit but in the morning when he goes to water his plants, he discovers his friend has parked in such a way to block easy access and he must walk around the long way to do the job.
Joe’s first reaction is mild anger at his friend for the inconvenience. Almost instantly, he regrets feeling that way as he knows his friend was unaware of the issue. So, he is able to dissipate some of his negative feelings by re-contexualizing the issue spatially with the notion that he would rather have his friend visit and have the problem than have his friend not visit.
But, this only balances the emotional inequity by saying the benefits outweigh the costs. So, Joe is still left with negative feelings due to the emotional value of his friend’s visit that is now being lessened by deducting the emotional cost of the inconvenience. Then Joe, while watering, tries a another justification by considering that he is a little out of shape and the extra exertion will do him good in the long run.
This shift in context is based in truth, so Joe now feels good about the extra walk and along with his first justification that salved his feelings, he has finally fully eliminated his negative emotions and now has an overall positive cost-free perspective of both his friend’s visit and of the inconvenience.
But, there’s still a problem of a different sort remaining. Since the emotional inequity has now been eliminated, so too has the potential for further motivation also been removed. The end result is that Joe will not now consider buying a new hose to avoid the long walk around, which would have solved the problem once and for all for every visitor he receives in the future.
Bottom line – justification is neither good nor bad, except in context. It may eliminate emotional negatives, but it can also eliminate motivation. By understanding the mental mechanisms by which justifications are created, we can provide insight into our characters, furnish them with believable balanced motivations, and offer valuable understanding for our readers/audience through the voice of the Wise Author.
And, by turning this understanding upon ourselves, we can learn to recognize these mental patterns within ourselves as they happen, allowing us to make a conscious decision as to the best context for our purposes, rather than subconsciously falling into habitual patterns of justification, regardless of their effectiveness in the current situation and circumstances.
Some writers tend to create characters that are more or less the same age as themselves. Other writers populate their stories with characters of all ages but have them all act as if they are the same age as the author. On the one hand, this follows the old adage that one should write about what one knows. But on the other hand, while such characters may function well enough, somehow they don’t ring true.
In real life, we encounter people of all ages in most situations. And while every individual is unique, there are certain attributes common to broad age groups that need to be built into your characters if they are come across as real people.
In this writing tip we’re going to uncover a variety of traits that bear on an accurate portrayal of age, and even offer the opportunity to explore seldom-depicted human issues associated with age, be it young or old.
People in general, and writers in particular, tend to stereotype the attributes of age more than just about any other character trait. These broad stroke qualities include the physical aspects of age, ranging from size, smoothness of skin, strength and mobility to the various ailments associated with our progress through life as well as the mental and emotional qualities that we expect to find at various junctures.
While these may be accurate in general, they are all rather superficial. In reality, the process of aging involves quite a number of subtle components that need to be woven into a character’s tapestry for them to take on the human quality of the people we know and love (or hate) in our own lives.
Anatomical vs. Chronological age
Before examining any specific age-related traits, it is important to note the difference between anatomical and chronological age. Anatomical age is the condition of your body whereas chronological age is the actual number of years you’ve been around. For example, if you are thirty years old, but all worn out and genetically biased to age prematurely, you might look more akin to what people would expect of a fifty year old. Nonetheless, you wouldn’t have the same interests in music or direct knowledge of the popular culture as someone who was actually fifty years old.
When describing a character, you might choose to play off your readers’ expectations by letting them assume the physical condition, based on your description of age. Or, you might wish to create some additional interest in your character by describing him as “A middle-aged man so fit and healthy, he was still “carded” whenever he vacationed in Vegas.” Such a description adds an element of interest and immediately sets your character out at an individual.
Far too often, characters speak in the same generic conversational language we hear on television. In other words, characters speak as if they all think alike, even if they were brought up in completely different eras. But aging is an ongoing evolution of culture, rooting the individual into thought patterns of his or her formative hears, and tempered (to some degree) by the ongoing cultural indoctrination of a social lifestyle.
For example, my grandmother was born in 1902 and lived to see the coming of electricity in her home, the first airplanes and cars, the first radio programs, two world wars, suffrage, prohibition, home computers, man on the moon, and color TV. Society changed, culture changed; science, industry, medicine, politics, and entertainment changed. An though my grandmother still had roots to her childhood, all these innovations and alterations were part of her essence as well.
Characters, therefore, tend to pick up a basic vocabulary reflective of both their early identity AND their current world. For example, a black man who fought for civil rights along side Dr. Martin Luther King, would not be using the exact same jargon ad a black man advancing the cause of rights today. And neither of these would use the same vocabulary as a young black man in the center city, trying to find his way out through education. And yet, some of what they say will be nearly identical in content and even in terms of buzz words, as it is the current topic, but the context, perspective, references and specific jargon cannot help but be tempered by their eras of their lives.
Sure, we all learn to drop some of the more dated terms and expletives of our youth in order to appear “hip” or “with it,” but in the end we either sound silly trying to use the new ones, or avoid them altogether, leaving us bland and un-passionate in our conversation. Both of these approaches can be depicted in your characters as well, and can provide a great deal of information about the kind of mind your character possesses.
Speaking of characters’ minds, we all have a culturally created filter that focuses our attention on some things, and blinds us to (or diminishes) others. Sometimes, this is built into the language itself. When it is hot, the Spanish say, “hace calor” (it makes heat). This phrasing is due to the underlying beliefs of the people who developed that language that see every object, even those that are inanimate, as possessing a spirit. So, when it is hot, this is not a mindless state of affairs due to meteorological conditions, but rather to the intent of the spirit of the weather. Of course, if you were to ask a modern Spanish speaking person if they believed in such a thing, you would likely receive a negative reply. And yet, because this concept permeates the language (such making everyday items masculine or feminine), it cannot help but alter the way native speakers of the language will frame their thoughts.
As another example, the Japanese population of world war two was indoctrinated in the culture of honor, duty, and putting the needs of society above those of the individual. Although most countries foster this view, in war-time Japan, it was carried to the extreme, resulting in an effective Kamikaze force, and also in whole units that chose a suicidal charge against oncoming forces, rather than to be humiliated by defeat or capture.
Corporate Japan was built around these Samurai ideals, and workers commonly perceived themselves as existing to serve their companies with loyalty and unquestioning obedience. But when the economy faltered, those who expected to remain with their companies for life were laid off, or even permanently fired. This led to a disillusionment of the “group first” mentality, especially among the young, who had not yet become settled in their beliefs. So, today, there is still a gap between the old-guard corporate executives, and the millions of teenagers to whom they market. Age, in this case, creates a significant difference in the way the world looks.
Continuing with the notion of generation gaps, I grew up when the rallying cry was “Don’t trust anyone over 30.” Of course, now we’re all in our sixties, so we are forced to admit that we, ourselves, have in fact become “the Establishment.”
But that is what is visible and obvious to us. The real difference between my generation and the post Yuppie, post GenX, GenY, Gen? Millennial Generation is far more foundational. In conversations with my daughter some years ago, I discovered that while I see myself on the other side of the generation gap, she does not perceive a gap at all! This is due to in part to the plethora of high-quality recorded programs, which capture so many fine performances and presentations from decades ago when the artists and great thinkers were in their prime. We live in a TV Land universe in which no great works ever die; they are just reborn in streaming media.
To my daughter’s generation, it is only important whether or not you have something worth saying. How old you are has nothing to do with your importance or relevance. In short, the difference between my generation and the younger generation is that we perceive a difference between the generations and they don’t!
In summary then, the age in which you establish your worldview will determine how you perceive current events for the rest of your life. When creating characters of any particular age, you would do well to consider the cultural landscape that was prevalent when each character was indoctrinated.
We all share the same human emotional needs. And we each experience moments that fulfill those needs. Those experiences become fond memories, and many of the trappings of those experiences become comfort symbols. In later life, we seek out those symbols to trigger the re-experiencing of the cherished moments. Perhaps your family served a particular food in your childhood that you associate with warmth and love. For example, my mother grew up during the Great Depression in the 1930s. Her family was often short of food. So, as a snack, they would give her a piece of bread spread with lard and mustard! Now the thought very nearly sickens me, but she often yearned for that flavor again, as it reminded her of the love she received as a child.
Once we have locked into symbols that we can use to trigger emotional experiences, we seldom need to replace them. They are our comfort symbols upon which we can always rely. This has two effects as we age: One, we latch on to performers and music, as an example, that age along with us. We recall them at their prime when we first encountered them, and also have spent years aging along with them. This leads us to suddenly wake up one day and realize we no longer know who they are referring to in popular culture magazines and entertainment reporting televisions shows. In other words, the popular culture has passed us by. Two, we see many of our symbols (favorite advertising campaigns, a restaurant where we went on our first date, etc.) vanish as they are replaced with new and current concerns. So, the world around us seems less relevant, less familiar, and less comfortable, just as we seem to the world at large.
When creating characters, take into account the potential ongoing and growing sense of loss, sadness, and connection between characters and their environment. And don’t think this is a problem only for the elderly. My son laments that there are kids growing up today who never knew a world without personal computers! He says it makes him feel old.
Babies have a soft spot on their heads that doesn’t harden up for quite a while after birth. Cartilage wears out. Teens in puberty have raging hormones. Young kids grow so fast that they don’t have a chance to get used to the size and strength of their bodies before they have changed again, not unlike trying to drive a new and different car every day. I can’t remember the last time I ran full-tilt. I’m not sure it would be safe, today! Point is, our bodies are always changing. Sometimes the state we are in has positive and/or negative qualities – other times the changing itself is positive or negative.
When creating characters, give some thought to the physical attributes and detriments of any given age, and consider how they not only affect the abilities and mannerisms of your characters, but their mental and emotional baselines as well.
Sure, we could go on and on exploring specifics of age and aging, but since it is an omnipresent human condition, it touches virtually every human experience and endeavor. The point here is not to completely cover the subject, but to encourage you to consider it when creating each of your characters. It isn’t enough to simply describe a character as “a middle-aged man,” or “a perky 8 year old girl.” You owe it to your characters and to your readers or audience to incorporate the aging experience into your characters’ development, for it is inexorably integrated into our own.
Groucho Marx once said, “You’re headed for a nervous breakdown. Why don’t you pull yourself to pieces?” That, in fact, is what we’re going to do to our hero.
Now many writers focus on a Hero and a Villain as the primary characters in any story. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But as we are about to discover, there are so many more options for creative character construction.
Take the average hero. What qualities might we expect to find in the fellow? For one thing, the traditional hero is always the Protagonist. By that we mean he or she is the Prime Mover in the effort to achieve the story goal. This doesn’t presuppose the hero is a willing leader of that effort. For all we know he might accept that charge kicking and screaming. Nonetheless, once stuck in the situation, the hero drives the push to achieve the goal.
Another quality of a stereotypical hero is that he is also the Main Character. By this we mean that the hero is constructed so that the audience stands in his shoes. In other words, the audience identifies with the hero and sees the story as centering around him.
A third quality of the most usual hero configuration is being a “Good Guy.” Simply, he intends to do the right thing. Of course, he might be misguided or inept, but he wants to do good, and he does try.
And finally, let us note that heroes are usually the Central Character, meaning that he gets more “media real estate” (pages, screen time, lines of dialog) than any other character.
Listing these four qualities we get:
2. Main Character.
3. Good Guy.
4. Central Character
Getting right to the point, the first two items in the list are structural in nature, while the last two are storytelling. Protagonist describes the character’s function from the Objective View described earlier. Main Character positions the audience in that particular character’s spot through the Main Character View. In contrast, being a Good Guy is a matter of personality, and Central Character is determined by the attention given to that character by the author’s storytelling.
You’ve probably noticed that we’ve used common terms such as Protagonist, Main Character, and Central Character in very specific ways. In actual practice, most authors bandy these terms about more or less interchangeably. There’s nothing wrong with that, but for structural purposes it’s not very precise. That’s why you’ll see Dramatica being something of a stickler in its use of terms and their definitions: it’s the only way to be clear.
At this juncture, you may be wondering why we even bother breaking down a hero into these pieces. What’s the value in it? The answer is that these pieces don’t necessarily have to go together in this stereotypical way.
For example, in the classic story of racial prejudice, To Kill a Mockingbird, the Protagonist function and the Main Character View are separated into two different characters.
The Protagonist is Atticus, played by Gregory Peck in the movie version. Atticus is a principled Southern lawyer in the 1930s who is assigned to defend a black man wrongly accused of raping a white girl. His goal is to ensure justice is done, and he is the Prime Mover in this endeavor.
But we do not stand in Atticus’ shoes, however. Rather, the story is told through the eyes of Scout, his your daughter, who observers the workings of prejudice from a child’s innocence.
Why not make Atticus a typical hero who is also the Main Character? First, Atticus sticks by his principles regardless of the dangers and pressures brought to bear. If he had represented the audience position, the audience/reader would have felt quite self-righteous throughout the story’s journey.
But there is even more advantage to splitting these qualities between two characters. The audience identifies with Scout. And we share her fear of the local boogey man known as Boo Radley – a monstrous mockery of human form who forms the stuff of local terror stories. All the kids know about Boo, and though we never see him, we hear their tales of his horrible ways.
At the end of the story, it turns out that Boo is just a gentle giant, a normal man with a kind heart but low intellect. As was the custom in that age, his parents kept him indoors, inside the basement of the house, leaving him pale and scary-looking due to the lack of sunlight. But Boo ventures out at night, leading to the false but horrible stories about him when he is occasionally sighted.
As it happens, Scout’s life is threatened by the father of the girl who was ostensibly raped in an attempt to get back at Atticus. Lo and behold, it is Boo who comes to her rescue. In fact, he has always been working behind the scenes to protect the children and is not at all the horrible monster they all presupposed.
In a moment of revelation, we, the audience, come to realize we have been cleverly manipulated by the author to share Scout’s initial prejudice against Boo. Rather than feeling self-righteous by identifying with Atticus, we have been led to realize that we are just as capable of prejudice as the obviously misguided adults we have been observing.
The message of the story is that prejudice does not have to come from meanness, but will happen within the heart of anyone who passes judgment based on hearsay rather than direct knowledge. This statement could never have been successfully made if the elements of the typical hero had all been placed in Atticus.
So, the message of our little story here is that there is nothing wrong with writing about heroes and villains, but it is limiting. By separating the components of the hero into individual qualities, we open our options to a far greater number of dramatic scenarios that are far less stereotypical.
Even when a story has memorable characters, a riveting plot and a fully developed genre, it may still be coming apart at the themes.
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.
Dramatica is a theory of story that offers both writers and critics a clear view of what story structure is and how it works. Dramatica is also the inspiration behind the line of story development software products that bear its name.
The central concept of the Dramatica theory is a notion called the “Story Mind.” In a nutshell, this simply means that every story has a mind of its own – its own personality; its own psychology. A story’s personality is developed by an author’s style and subject matter; its psychology is determined by the underlying dramatic structure.
The Story Mind
The Story Mind is at the heart of Dramatica, and everything else about the theory grows out of that. If you don’t buy into it, at least a little, then you’re not going to find much use for the rest of this book. So let’s take look into the Story Mind right off the bat to see if it is worth your while to keep reading…
Simply put, the Story Mind means that we can think of a story as if it were a person. The storytelling style and the subject matter determine the story’s personality, and the underlying dramatic structure determines its psychology.
Now the personality of a story is a touchy-feely thing, while the psychology is a nuts-and-bolts mechanical thing. Let’s consider the personality part first, and then turn our attention to the psychology.
Like anyone you meet, a story has a personality. And what makes up a personality? Well, everything from the subject matter a person talks about to their attitude toward life. Similarly, a story might be about the Old West or Outer Space, and its attitude could be somber, sneaky, lively, hilarious, or any combination of other human qualities.
Is this a useful perspective? Can be. Many writers get so wrapped up in the details of a story that they lose track of the overview. For example, you might spend all kinds of time working out the specifics of each character’s personality yet have your story take a direction that is completely out of character for its personality. But if you step back every once and a while and think of the story as a single person, you can really get a sense of whether or not it is acting in character.
Imagine that you have invited your story to dinner. You have a pleasant conversation with it over the meal. Of course, it is more like a monologue because your story does all the talking – just as it will to your audience or reader.
Your story is a practical joker, or a civil war buff (genre), and it talks about what interests it. It tells you a story about a problem with some endeavor (plot) in which it was engaged. It discusses the moral issues (theme) involved and its point of view on them. It even divulges the conflicting drives (characters) that motivated it while it tried to resolve the difficulties.
You want to ask yourself if it’s story makes sense. If not, you need to work on the logic of your story. Does it feel right, as if the Story Mind is telling you everything, or does it seem like it is holding something back? If so, your story has holes that need filling. And does your story hold your interest for two hours or more while it delivers it’s monologue? If not, it’s going to bore it’s captive audience in the theater, or the reader of its report (your book), and you need to send it back to finishing school for another draft.
Again, authors get so wrapped up in the details that they lose the big picture. But by thinking of your story as a person, you can get a sense of the overall attraction, believability, and humanity of your story before you foist it off on an unsuspecting public.
There’s much more we’ll have to say about the personality of the Story Mind and how to leverage it to your advantage. But, our purpose right now is just to see if Dramatica might be of use to you. So, let’s examine the other side of the Story Mind concept – the story’s psychology as represented in its structure.
The Dramatica theory is primarily concerned with the structure of a story. Everything in that structure represents an aspect of the human mind, almost as if the processes of the mind had been made tangible and projected out externally for the audience to observe.
Do you remember the model kit of the “Visible Man?” It was a 12″ human figure made out of clear plastic so you could see the skeleton and all the organs on the inside. Well that is how the Story Mind works. it takes the processes of the human mind, and turns them into characters, plot, theme, and genre, so we can study them in detail. In this way, an author can provide understanding to an audience of the best way to deal with problems. And, of course, all of this is wrapped up and disguised in the particular subject matter, style, and techniques of the storyteller.
Now this makes it sound as if the real meat of a story, the real people, places, events, and topics, are just window dressing to distract the audience from the serious business of the structure. But that’s not what we’re saying here. In fact, structure and storytelling work side by side, hand in hand, to create an audience/reader experience that transcends the power of either by itself.
Therefore, structure and storytelling are neither completely dependent upon each other, nor are they wholly independent. One structure might be told in a myriad of ways, like West Side Story and Romeo and Juliet. Similarly, any given group of characters dealing with a particular realm of subject matter might be wrapped around any number of different structures, like weekly television series.
But let’s get back to the nature of the structure itself and to the elements that make up the Story Mind. If characters, plot, theme, and genre represent aspects of the human mind made tangible, what are they?
Characters represent the conflicting drives of our own minds. For example, in our own minds, our reason and our emotions are often at war with one another. Sometimes what makes the most sense doesn’t feel right at all. And conversely, what feels so right might not make any sense at all. Then again, there are times when both agree and what makes the most sense also feels right on.
Reason and Emotion then, become two archetypal characters in the Story Mind that illustrate that inner conflict that rages within ourselves. And in the structure of stories, just as in our minds, sometimes these two basic attributes conflict, and other times they concur.
Theme, on the other hand, illustrates our troubled value standards. We are all plagued with uncertainties regarding the right attitude to take, the best qualities to emulate, and whether our principles should remain fixed and constant or should bend in context to particular circumstances.
Plot compares the relative value of the methods we might employ within our minds in our attempt to press on through these conflicting points of view on the way toward a mental consensus.
And genre explores the overall attitude of the Story Mind – the points of view we take as we watch the parade of our own thoughts unfold, and the psychological foundation upon which our personality is built.
A common misconception sees genre as a fixed list of dramatic requirements or a rigid structural template from which there can be no deviation. Writers laboring under these restrictions often find themselves boxed-in creatively. They become snared in the Genre Trap, cranking out stories that are indistinguishable from a whole crop of their contemporaries
In fact, genre should be a fluid and organic entity that grows from each story individually. Such stories are surprising, notable, memorable, and involving. In this article, you’ll learn a new flexible technique for creating stories that are unique within their genres.
How We Fall Into the Genre Trap
The first step in escaping from the Genre Trap is to understand how we fall into it in the first place. Consider how wrapped up you become in the details of your story. You slave over every plot point, struggle to empathize with every one of your characters, and perhaps even grieve over the effort to instill a passionate theme.
The problem is, you become so buried in the elements of your story that you lose sight of what it feels like as a whole. So while every piece may work individually, the overall impact may be fragmented, incomplete, or inconsistent. To avoid this, we fall back on “proven” structures of successful stories in a similar genre. We cut out parts of our story that don’t fit that template, and add new sections to fill the gaps. We snip and hammer until our story follows along the dotted lines.
And lo and behold, we have fallen into the genre trap – taking our original new idea and making it just like somebody else’s old idea. Sure, the trappings are different. Our characters have different names. The big battle between good and evil takes place in a roller rink instead of a submarine. But underneath it all, the mood, timber, and feel of our story is just like the hundred others stamped out in the same genre mold.
A New Definition of Genre
Rather than thinking of your story as a structure, a template, or a genre, stand back a bit and look at your story as it appears to your reader or audience. To them, every story has a personality of its own, almost as if it were a human being. From this perspective, stories fall into personality types, just like real people.
When you meet someone for the first time, you might initially classify them as a Nerd, a Bully, a Wisecracker, a Philanthropist, or a Thinker.
These, of course, are just first impressions, and if you get the chance to spend some time with each person, you begin to discover a number of traits and quirks that set them apart from any other individual in that personality type.
Similarly, when you encounter a story for the first time, you likely classify it as a Western, a Romance, a Space Opera, or a Buddy Picture. Essentially, you see the personality of the story as a Stereotype.
At first, stories are easy to classify because you know nothing about them but the basic broad strokes. But as a story unfolds, it reveals its own unique qualities that transform it from another faceless tale in the crowd to a one-of-a-kind experience with its own identity.
At least, that is what it ought to do. But if you have fallen into the Genre Trap, you actually edit out all the elements that make your story different and add others that make it the same. All in the name of the Almighty Genre Templates.
How to Avoid the Genre Trap
Avoiding the Genre Trap is not only easy, but creatively inspiring as well! The process can begin at the very start of your story’s development (though you can apply this technique for re-writes as well).
Step One – Choosing Genres:
Make a list of all the Stereotypical Genres that have elements you might want to include in the story you are currently developing. For example, you might want to consider aspects of a Western, a Space Opera, a Romance, and a Horror Story.
Step Two – Listing Genre Elements:
List all the elements of each of these genres that intrigue you in general. For example:
Western – Brawl in the Saloon, Showdown Gunfight, Chase on Horseback, Lost Gold Mine, Desert, Indians.
Space Opera – Time Warp, Laser Battle, Exploding Planet, Alien Race, Spaceship Battle, Ancient Ruins.
Romance – Boy Meets Girl, Boy Loses Girl, Boy Gets Girl, Misunderstanding alienates Boy and Girl, Rival for Girl throws out Misinformation, Last Minute Reveal of the Truth leading to Joyful Reunion.
Horror Story – Series of Grizzly and Inventive Murders, The Evil Gradually Closes in on the Heroes, Scary Isolated Location, Massive Rainstorm with Lightning and Thunder.
(Note that some genre elements are about setting, some about action, and some about character relationships. That’s why it is so hard to say what genre is. And it is also why looking at genre, as a story’s Personality Type is so useful.
Step Three – Selecting Genre Elements:
From the lists of elements you have created, pick and choose elements from each of the genres that you might like to actually include in your story.
For example, from Western you might want Lost Gold Mine, Desert, and Indians. From Space Opera you might choose Spaceship Battle, Exploding Planet and Alien Race. Romance would offer up all the elements you had listed: Boy Meets Girl, Boy Loses Girl, Boy Gets Girl, Misunderstanding alienates Boy and Girl, Rival for Girl throws our Misinformation, Last Minute Reveal of the Truth leading to Joyful Reunion. And finally, from Horror Story you might select Scary Isolated Location, Massive Rainstorm with Lightning and Thunder.
Step Four – Cross Pollinating Genres:
From this Master List of Genre Elements that you might like to include in your story, see if any of the elements from one genre have a tie-in with those from another genre.
For example, Indians from the Western and Alien Race from the Space Opera could become a race of aliens on a planet that share many of the qualities of the American Indian. And, the relationship between the boy and the girl easily becomes a Romeo and Juliet saga of a human boy colonizing the planet who falls in love with an alien girl.
Step Five – Peppering Your Story with Genre Elements:
Once you’ve chosen your elements and cross-pollinated others, you need to determine where in your story to place them. If you are stuck in a Genre Trap, there is a tendency to try and get all the genre elements working right up front so that the genre is clear to the reader/audience.
This is like trying to know everything there is to discover about a person as soon as you meet him or her. It is more like a resume than an introduction. The effect is to overload the front end of the story with more information than can be assimilated, and have nowhere left to go when the reader/audience wants to get to know the story’s personality better as the story unfolds.
So, make a timeline of the key story points in your plot. Add in any principal character moments of growth, discovery, or conflict. Now, into that timeline pepper the genre elements you have developed for your story.
For example, you might decide to end with a massive spaceship battle, or you could choose to open with one. The information about the Alien Race being like the America Indians might be right up front in the Teaser, or you could choose to reveal it in the middle of the second act as a pivotal turning point in the story.
Because genre elements are often atmospheric in nature, they can frequently be placed just about anywhere without greatly affecting the essential flow of the plot or the pace of character growth.
As you look at your timeline, you can see and control the reader’s first impressions of the story genre. And you can anticipate the ongoing mood changes in your story’s feel as additional elements in its personality are revealed, scene-by-scene or chapter-by-chapter.
What about Re-writes?
Not everyone wants to start a story with genre development. In fact, you might want to go through an entire draft and then determine what genre elements you’d like to add to what you already have.
The process is the same. Just list the genres that have elements you might wish to include. List the elements in each that intrigue you. Select the ones that would fit nicely into your story. Cross-Pollinate where you can. Pepper them into your existing timeline to fill gaps where the story bogs down and to reveal your story as a unique personality.
Summing Up the Sum of the Parts
Genre is part setting, part action, part character, and part story-telling style. Trying to follow a fixed template turns your story into just another clone. But by recognizing that genre is really a story’s personality type, you can make it as individual as you like. And by peppering your elements throughout your story’s timeline, you will create first impressions that will capture your reader or audience and then hold their interest as your story’s one-of-a-kind personality reveals itself.
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