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Be a StoryWeaver
NOT a Story Mechanic
by Melanie Anne Phillips
many writers fall into the trap of making Structure their Story God.
There’s no denying that structure is important, but paying too much
attention to structure can destroy your story.
We have all seen movies and read novels that feel like “paint by
numbers” creations. Sure, they hit all the marks and cover all the
expected relationships, but they seem stilted, uninspired, contrived,
The authors of such pedestrian fare are Story Mechanics. A Story
Mechanic is a writer who constructs a story as if it were a machine.
Starting with a blueprint, the writer gathers the necessary dramatic
components, assembles the gears and pulleys, tightens all the structural
nuts and bolts, and then tries to make the story interesting with a
fancy paint job.
But there is another kind of writer who creates a different kind of
story. These Story Weavers begin with subjects or concepts they
are passionate about and let the structure suggest itself from the
material. They see their players as people before they consider them as
characters. Events are happenings before they are plot. Values precede
theme and the story develops a world before it develops a genre.
A book or movie written by a Story Weaver is involving, riveting, and
compelling. It captures the fullness of human emotion, and captivates
This article will explore how to be a Story Weaver – NOT a Story
The Story Weaver’s Method
First, clear your mind of any thoughts about characters, plot, theme,
and genre. Avoid any consideration of character arc, hero’s journey,
acts, scenes, sequences, beats, messages, premises, settings,
atmosphere, and formulas. In short – don’t give structure a second
Now work to create a world in which people live and interact, things
happen, meaning can be found and the environment is intriguing. To do
this, we’ll progress through four different stages of story creation:
Inspiration, Development, Exposition, and Storytelling.
Inspiration can come from many sources: a conversation overheard at a
coffee shop, a newspaper article, or a personal experience to name a
few. And, inspiration can also take many forms: a snippet of dialogue, a
bit of action, a clever concept, and so on.
If you can’t think of a story idea to save your life, there are a few
things you can do to goose the Muse.
First of all, consider your creative time. Some people consistently find
inspiration in the morning, others in the afternoon, evening or even in
the dead of night. Some people are more creative in the summer and
can’t write worth a darn in the other three seasons. There are authors
who work in cycles and those who come up with ideas in spurts. The key
to using your creative time is to keep a log of your most fertile
moments and then plan ahead to keep that kind of time open for further
And don’t neglect your creative space either. There are authors who go
off to a mountain cabin to write. Some like lots of noise or babble,
like a city street below their open window or an all-news station on the
radio as background. There are writers who prefer a cluttered room
because it engenders chaos, which leads to serendipity. Others can’t
think a lick unless everything is orderly, neat and in its place.
Creative space includes the clothes you wear while writing. There are
those who wear hats when developing characters and others who pantomime
action sequences to get in the feel of it.
Open yourself to different writing media. If you only use a desktop
computer, try a laptop, a palm organizer with a folding keyboard, long
hand on a pad, or a digital voice recorder. And don’t be afraid to
switch around any of these from time to time and mood to mood.
If you still can’t come up with an idea, try the Synthesis Technique.
In brief, you want to subject yourself to two disparate sources of
information. For example, put a talk radio program on while reading a
magazine or watching television and let the odd juxtaposition spur your
Finally, if all else fails, try using Nonsense Words. Just jot down
three random words, such as “Red Ground Rover.” Then, write as many
different explanations as you can for what that phrase might mean. For
example, Red Ground Rover might be:
1. A red dog named rover whose legs are so short his belly rubs the
2. The Martian Rover space vehicle on the red planet’s surface
3. Fresh hamburger made from dog
Your list might go on and on. Now most of these potential meanings might
be pure rubbish, but occasionally a good idea can surface. If the first
three words don’t work, try three different ones. And, in the end,
even if you don’t find an idea directly from your explanations of each
phrase, you’ll have so stocked the creative spirit that you will find
yourself far more prone to inspiration than before you started the
Use these inspiration techniques to come up with a log line for your
story. A log line is simply a one- or two-sentence description of what
your story is about in general. They are the same kind of short
descriptions you find in TV Guide or in your cable or satellite TV
A sample log line might be, “The marshal in an old western town
struggles to stop a gang that is bleeding the town dry.”
Once you’ve been inspired enough to create a log line, you can move
into the second stage of Story Weaving: Development. Here is where you
take your basic concept and flesh it out with lots more detail.
In Development you’ll begin to populate your story with people you
might like to write about, work out some of the things that will happen
in your story, and establish the world or environment in which it takes
place. These efforts will ultimately result in your characters, plot,
theme, and genre.
There are many Story Weaving techniques for the Development stage, but
one of the most powerful is to project your world beyond what is
specifically stated in the log line.
As an example, let’s use the log line from above: “The marshal in an
old western town struggles to stop a gang that is bleeding the town
dry.” Now let’s see how we can expand that world to create a whole
group of people who grow out of the story, some of whom will ultimately
become our characters.
The only specifically called-for characters are the marshal and the
gang. But, you'd expect the gang to have a leader and the town to have a
mayor. The marshal might have a deputy. And, if the town is being bled
dry, then some businessmen and shopkeepers would be in order as well.
Range a little wider now and list some characters that aren't
necessarily expected, but wouldn't seem particularly out of place in
such a story.
Example: A saloon girl, a bartender, blacksmith, rancher, preacher,
Now, let yourself go a bit and list a number of characters that would
seem somewhat out of place but still explainable in such a story.
Example: A troupe of traveling acrobats, Ulysses S. Grant, a Prussian
Duke, a bird watcher.
Finally, pull out all the stops and list some completely inappropriate
characters that would take a heap of explaining to your reader/audience
if they showed up in your story.
Example: Richard Nixon, Martians, the Ghost of Julius Caesar
Although you'll likely discard these characters, just the process of
coming up with them can lead to new ideas and directions for your story.
For example, the town marshal might become more interesting if he was a
history buff, specifically reading about the Roman Empire. In his first
run-in with the gang, he is knocked out cold with a concussion. For the
rest of the story, he keeps imagining the Ghost of Julius Caesar giving
him unwanted advice.
This same kind of approach can be applied to your log line to generate
the events that will happen in your story, the values you will explore,
and the nature of your story’s world (which will become your genre).
The third stage of Story Weaving is to lay out an Exposition Plan for
your story. By the time you complete the Development Stage, you will
probably have a pretty good idea what your story is about. But your
audience knows nothing of it - not yet - not until you write down what
Of course, you could just write, “My story’s goal is to rid the town
of the gang that is bleeding it dry. The marshal is the protagonist, and
he ultimately succeeds, but at great personal cost.”
Sure, it's a story, but not a very interesting one. If you were to
unfold your story in this perfunctory style, you'd have a complete story
that felt just like that "paint by numbers" picture we
Part of what gives a story life is the manner in which story points are
revealed, revisited throughout the story, played against each other and
blended together, much as a master painter will blend colors, edges,
shapes and shadows.
As an example, let’s create an Exposition Plan to reveal a story’s
goal. Sometimes a goal is spelled out right at the beginning, such as a
meeting in which a general tells a special strike unit that a senator's
daughter has been kidnapped by terrorists and they must rescue her.
Other times, the goal is hidden behind an apparent goal. So, if your
story had used the scene described above, it might turn out that it was
really just a cover story and, in fact, the supposed
"daughter" was actually an agent who was assigned to identify
and kill a double agent working on the strike team.
Goals may also be revealed slowly, such as in The Godfather, where it
takes the entire film to realize that the goal is to keep the family
alive by replacing the aging Don with a younger member of the family.
Further, in The Godfather, as in many Alfred Hitchcock films, the goal
is not nearly as important as the chase or the inside information or the
thematic atmosphere. So don't feel obligated to elevate every story
point to the same level.
Let your imagination run wild. Jot down as many instances as come to
mind in which the particular story point comes into play. Such events,
moments or scenarios enrich a story and add passion to a perfunctory
telling of the tale.
One of the best ways to do this is to consider how each story point
might affect other story points. For example, each character sees the
overall goal as a step in helping them accomplish their personal goals.
So, why not create a scenario where a character wistfully describes his
personal goal to another character while sitting around a campfire? He
can explain how achievement of the overall story goal will help him get
what he personally wants.
An example of this is in the John Wayne classic movie, The Searchers.
John Wayne's character asks an old, mentally slow friend to help search
for the missing girl. Finding the girl is the overall goal. The friend
has a personal goal: he tells Wayne that he just wants a roof over his
head and a rocking chair by the fire. This character sees his
participation in the effort to achieve the goal as the means of
obtaining something he has personally longed for.
By the time you’ve created an Exposition Plan for each story point you
worked on in the Development phase, you’ll have assembled a huge
number of events, moments, and scenarios. There’s only one thing left
to do: tell your story!
Storytelling is a multi-faceted endeavor. It incorporates style, timing,
blending of several story points into full-bodied scenes, sentence
structure, grammar, vocabulary, and good old-fashioned charisma.
Story Mechanics often get stuck at this point. They write one great line
and become so intimidated by its grandeur they are afraid to write
anything else lest it not measure up to that initial quality.
Fact is, you’re only as good as your own talent – GET OVER IT!
Don’t grieve over every phrase to try and make yourself look better
than you are. Just spew out the words and get the story told. Something
not up to snuff? That’s what re-writes are for!
Get in touch with your own passions. Each of us is born a passionate
human being. But we quickly learn that the world does not appreciate all
our emotional expressions. In no time, we develop a whole bag of
behaviors that don’t truly reflect who we really are. But, they do
help us get by.
Problem is, these false presentations of our selves appear to be our
real selves to everyone else. So, they give us presents we don’t
really want, make friendships with people we don’t really like, and
even marry people we don’t really love!
This false life we develop is a mask, but by no means is it always a
well-fitting one. In fact, it chafes against the real “us.” The
emotional irritation could be eliminated if we removed the mask, but
then we might lose our jobs, friends, and lovers because they might find
the actual people we are to be total strangers and not someone they
So instead, we just tighten the mask down so hard it becomes an exo-skeleton,
part of what we call “ourselves.” In fact, after a time, we forget
we are even wearing a mask. We come to believe that this is who we
Now, try getting in touch with your passions through that! The mask
dampens any emotional energy we have and our writing dribbles out like
Wanna’ really be passionate? Then try this: Lock the doors, take the
phone off the hook, search for hidden video cameras, and then sit down
to write. For just one page, write about the one thing about yourself
you are most afraid that anyone would ever find out.
By writing about your most shameful or embarrassing trait or action, you
will tap right through that mask into the your feelings. And a gusher of
passion will burst out of the hole.
Once you know where to find the oil field of your soul, you can drill
down into it any time you like. Of course, every time you draw from that
well, you put more cracks in the mask. Eventually, the darn thing might
shatter altogether, leaving you unable to be anyone but yourself with
your boss, your friends, and your lover. Downside risk: you might lose
them all. But, you’ll be a far better writer.
And finally, go for broke. Exaggerate and carry everything you do to the
extreme. It is far easier to go overboard and then temper it back in a
re-write than to underplay your work and have to try and beef it up.
Remember, there is only one cardinal sin in Story Weaving, and that is
boring your audience!
There are far more tips, tricks, and techniques than we can fit into
this single article. But by applying even these few, you will be well on
your way to being a Story Weaver – NOT a Story Mechanic!
1. Keep a log of the times and places you are most inspired. See if you
can spot patterns and trends to help you schedule where and when to
2. Try the Synthesis Technique. Subject yourself to two different
sources of information, such as reading a magazine while listening to a
talk radio program. Jot down the creative ideas that come to mind.
3. Write three nonsense words, such as "Red Dog Rover" and
list as many different meanings as you can for your nonsense phrase.
Look over the list to see if any spur ideas for stories you might want
1. Write a short log line, or get one from a TV listing, and expand it
from what is stated to what is inferred.
2. Take the expanded log line and add your own material that is
consistent with the log line, but was not inferred at all.
1. From a story you have written, or a story idea you are developing,
devise 5 different ways of revealing the nature of the goal.
2. Devise several ways of revealing other story points, such as your
Main Character's person problem or drive, the consequences if the goal
is not met, or the moral conflict at the heart of your story.
1. When all alone, write about your most embarrassing or private secret
as a means of getting in touch with your passion. (Be sure to destroy
all the materials when you are done!)
2. Take a paragraph from something you have written, then re-write it in
an exaggerated manner. Put it way over the top. Then, tone it down to a
reasonable level and compare it to the original. See if some of the
changes might actually work more passionately than the first draft.
© Melanie Anne Phillips
Ms. Phillips’ StoryWeaver software (for Windows) provides a
step-by-step path for story development that takes you from concept to
completed novel or screenplay.
here for details and a free demo download
Melanie Anne Phillips is the creator of StoryWeaver and co-creator
of the Dramatica theory and software. After working on over 200 film
and video productions in various capacities such as writer, producer,
director, editor, director of photography, and even music scoring and
special effects, Ms. Phillips has devoted her career to teaching writers
the mechanics of story structure and the passionate art of storytelling.
Today, she continues to develop new software tools for writers, teach
both in-person and online writing workshops and to write books on a
variety of aspects of the writing craft and story development.
step by step approach to story development, from concept to completed
story for your novel or screenplay. More than 200 interactive
Story Cards guide you through the entire process.