Category Archives: Story Development Tips

Characters Have Two Jobs

Characters have two jobs. One, they must respond as real people so we can identify with them. Two, they must function as part of your plot to they contribute to the message.

Characters who don’t ring true drop your readers (or audience) out of their involvement with your story.
Characters who don’t have a plot function seem pointless and can disrupt the flow of your story.

That being said, there is no need to develop the personality of a character who is simply a vehicle of exposition to provide some necessary information to your readers.

Similarly, characters can provide color and passion to a story, even if they have no impact on the course of events.

Think of these two approaches to character as the “play by play” and “color commentary” on a sporting event. One announcer tells you what’s happening and how it fits into the big picture. The other announcer provides interesting information about the backstory and personality of each player, helping us see them as people, and drawing our interest and involvement.

In your story storytelling, review your work from time to time to ensure your critical characters are working to advance the plot. And then take an emotional picture each character in your story verify that they have sufficient personality traits and personal information to attract your readers, hold their attention throughout the story, and lead them to identify with your characters or at the very least, identify them as a “type” they see in everyday life.

More on character types in future Beginning Writer Tips from StoryWeaver.

Characters: What’s In A Name?

What’s in a name?  Choosing names for your characters can be perfunctory or can provide your readers or audience with insight into your characters’ natures, add humor or surprise, or even at the very least break out of ordinary monikers into the realm of the unusual.

To illustrate  how to leverage character names in your story, we’ve excerpted this story development step from our StoryWeaver Story Development Software:

What’s in a Name?

INTRODUCTION

So far, we’ve been dealing with characters primarily by their jobs, vocations or roles since we derived them from your plot. Now it’s time to start building some personality into your characters to see if they really have potential for your story, and we’ll begin by giving them names.

Few people (other than performers, artists, and writers) get to choose their own names. But as a writer, you have the power to choose the names of all your characters. And with this power comes the opportunity to say something to your readers or audience about a character’s inclinations, accomplishments, or outlook.

A name could convey military service, religious affiliation, or status. A nick-name might illuminate a major character trait, some event in a character’s past, or the way other characters feel about him or her. Names can add to comic value, hint at danger, or flirt with with mystery.

In this step, add a name to each of your characters that doesn’t already have one and reconsider the names of those characters who do.

TELL ME MORE

In this step, you’ll start interviewing all the folks that showed up for your casting call so you can learn a bit more about them in order to decide who to hire to be in your story.

The first step in any interview is to get to get the character’s name. You probably already have names for several of your potential cast members, but there are likely to be some whose names you don’t yet know.

For the nameless ones, it’s time to give them a moniker. Names give us our first impression of a character. In most stories you’ll want to keep most of your characters’ names normal and simple. But if they are too normal or if everyone has an ordinary name, you’re just boring your readers.

However, if your story requires typical names, try to pick ones that don’t sound like one another or your readers may become confused as to which one you are talking about. Personally, I’ve always had trouble remembering which one is Sauron and which is Sarumon, but that’s just me. Nonetheless, try to stay away from character combos like Jeanne and Jenny, Sonny and Sammy, Bart And Bret and – well, you get the idea.

If your story might benefit from giving some of your characters more unusual names, consider nicknames. Nicknames are wonderful dramatic devices because they can work with the character’s apparent nature, against it for humiliating or comedic effect, play into the plot by telegraphing the activities in which the character will engage, create irony, or provide mystery by hinting at information or a backstory for the character that led to its nickname but has not yet been divulged to the readers.

Keep in mind these are just temporary names for identification. You’ll have the chance to change them later. So for now, just add a name to every character in your potential cast list.

TIPS

What’s in a name? Not a name like “Joe” or “Sally” but something that opens the door to further development like “Muttering Murdock” or “Susan the Stilt.” Often coming up with a nickname or even a derogatory name one child might call another is a great way to establish a character’s heart.

What can we say about Muttering Murdock? The best way to develop a character (or for that matter, any aspect of your story) is to start with loose thread and then ask questions. So, for ol’ Muttering Murdock, the name is the loose end just hanging out there for us to pull. We might ask, “Why does Murdock Mutter?” (That’s obvious, of course!) But what else might we ask? Is Murdock a human being? Is Murdock male or female? How old is Murdock? What attributes describe Murdock’s physical traits? How smart is Murdock? Does Murdock have any talents? What about hobbies, education, religious affiliation? And so on, and so on….

We don’t need to know the answers to these questions, we just have to ask them.

Why Does Murdock Mutter?

  1. Because he has a physical deformity for the lips.
  2. Because he talks to himself, lost in his own world due to the untimely death of his parents, right in front of his eyes
  3. Because he feels he can’t hold his own with anyone face to face, so he makes all his comments so low that no one can hear, giving him the last word in his own mind.
  4. Because he is lost in thought about truly deep and complex issues, so he is merely talking to himself. No one ever knows that he is a genius because he never speaks clearly enough to be understood.

You get the idea. You just pull out all the stops and be creative. See, that’s the key. If you try to come up with a character from scratch, well good luck. But if you pick an arbitrary name, it can’t help but generate a number of questions. If you aren’t trying to come up with the one perfect answer to each question, you can let your Muse roam far and wide. Without constraints, you’ll be amazed at the odd variety of potential answers she brings back!

EXAMPLE

In our sample story, we’ve added names to all our characters with a good mix of the ordinary and the odd, including proper names and nick names. Some names just came to mind. Others are alterations of names of characters I’ve seen in television shows and movies. Some are based on sound-alike first and last names. In other words, names aren’t hard to come by, and mixing them up a bit just livens the party.

You’ll note that in several names, such as those of the posse, the gang, the businessmen, and the shopkeepers, I’ve given them organizational names such as The Gazpacho Enforcers. In so doing, I’ve given the town our example story the name of Gazpacho, so always be aware of opportunities to extend other parts of your story than the one you are currently working on. I’ll put the town name of Gazpacho in the Notes window to make sure I can refer to it later.

Also note that I’ve added an all new group character at the end of the list – a charitable organization: the Sons of the Gazpacho Ladies Auxiliary Support Society. The name just fell into my mind when I was naming all the Gazpacho groups and it struck me as to how ridiculous and pompous they sounded. Again, be on the lookout for random creative ideas: they can pop out of the shadows at any time!

Jedediah Farnsworth – The Old Sheriff

James Vestibule – The New Sheriff

The Hole in the Head Gang – Gang of Cutthroats

Armoire Vestibule Gang Leader (The sheriff’s wife)

The Gazpacho Enforcers – A posse

Stiff-Leg Sam – Deputy

Shandy Stilton – Mayor

J.W. Blinkers – Banker

The Gazpacho Consortium – Businessmen

The Gazpacho Retail Trade Association – Shopkeepers

Nell Goodtime – saloon girl

Slick Nick – bartender

Hugo Laughter – blacksmith

Bart Costello – rancher

Brother Bob – preacher

Nancy Lacy – schoolmarm

The Tumbling Troubadours – A troupe of traveling acrobats

Ulysses S. Grant – President of the United States

Percy Prancy – A bird watcher

Ghost of Julius Caesar – Annoying Spirit

The Sons of the Gazpacho Ladies Auxiliary Support Society – Charitable organization

*******

This article was excerpted from StoryWeaver

The Master Storyteller Method

Perhaps the greatest hurdle in writing is the attempt to bring structure to a story without putting your Muse in a straight jacket.

Often structure is brought into the picture too soon, clamping your passion into an iron maiden that pierces it more deeply with every turn of a structural screw until it bleeds out entirely.

In contrast, writing with purposeless abandon creates a jellyfish of a story: an amorphous blob of subject matter with no spine, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

The Master Storyteller Method was designed to bring passion and structure together seamlessly, at the right place and the right time in the story development process.

When first starting to write, our ideas usually come fast and furious. Many of them are little snippets: a notion for a line of dialog, a location in which some action will take place, the basic concept for a character, or perhaps a plot twist. Sometimes, we begin with no more than a period of history or a topic or an ethical message that we’d like to explore in our book or screenplay, and the more we think about it, the more ideas we get.

Like the pieces to a jigsaw puzzle, each story concept is separate, and what’s more, we haven’t seen the picture on the box so we don’t even know that we’re trying to build. What we are doing at this stage is developing a Story World – basically a realm of our interests or subject matter that is all of the same basic topic or genre, but really isn’t a story yet.

As the story world becomes more complete, we begin to get a sense of the story we want to tell. In fact, a single Story World can give birth to many different stories, such as with Harry Potter, Anne Rice’s Vampire Saga, and the Star Wars Universe.

The Master Storyteller Method provides techniques developing your story’s world and discovering who’s in it, what happens to them, and what it all means.

Your story world is like a map of the material you’d like to explore. Your story will be the specific path you take across it. Think of your Story World as a beautiful unspoiled landscape, untouched by the hand of man. You are a pioneer who is the first to see that gorgeous valley and your mind envisions a glorious city to be built there that works in harmony with the environment and provides an orderly life for its inhabitants.

You would not do well to have come with a predetermined “most efficient” city plan with all the streets and locations laid out with complete disregard to the terrain – to simply be stamped onto the land. Rather, you should look at the lay of the land and determine where a road can go straight and where it must go around a hill or a stand of trees to retain and even maximize the beauty of the scenic route.

Sometimes, alas, a tunnel must be drilled through a hill as it is the only way to get to a view, or a roadbed cleared through the trees so you can see the forest for them. But more often than not, if the landscape of your story is the guiding organizing property and the structure conforms to it, it will be a far finer city experience in the end.

The Master Storyteller Method gently creates a freeform structure: a means of organizing your story world that is both free and has form.

Eventually, you will have platted out your story city so that all the most impressive landmarks are left unaltered and there is an unbroken pathway that will convey your reader from one to the next until the sum total of your purpose in telling the story can be seen an appreciated.

But before you pave those roads and commit to construction, you’ll want to be sure you have made all the best choices and that no better alternatives have emerged during your efforts to refine and revise your city plan.

What you need is an objective way of double-checking that all the traffic will move smoothly, that the unexpected twists and turns in the road have a reason to be laid out that way and that no roads come up short or run into dead ends.

The Master Storyteller Method employs an interactive spot-check for all essential structural points and a guide against which you can compare your story-plan to see where and how far you may have diverged from a consistent structure.

Keep in mind that no structure has to be perfect in a finished work. Still, you’ll want your structure to be as sound as possible without undermining the very concepts that drew you to want to write this particular story in the first place. In the end, it is a judgment call for the author as to whether drifting off structure does too much harm or is okay in any given case.

The main point is that that no one reads a book or goes to a movie to experience a perfect structure but rather to have their passions ignited. So if it comes to a choice between an exciting thing and a structural thing, go with the excitement whenever you can, but be sure never to break structure completely or your readers or audience will not be able to cross that gap and will cease to follow you on your journey.

The Master Storyteller Method is at the core of the StoryWeaver story development software I designed to help authors get from concept to completion of their novels or screenplays, step by step.

Melanie Anne Phillips
Creator, StoryWeaver

Change is Good (or maybe bad)

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:

  1. The main character changes and things work out for the better.
  2. The main character changes and things work out for the worse.
  3. The main character remains steadfast and things work out for the better.
  4. 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:

  1. Did they achieve the goal?
  2. 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.

Also from the author of this article…

Clear Your Mind Before Writing

When beginning a new novel, writers are often faced with one of two initial problems that hinders them right from the get go.

One – sometimes you have a story concept but can’t think of what to do with it.  In other words, you know what you want to write about, but the characters and plot elude you.

Two – sometimes your head is swimming with so many ideas that you haven’t got a clue how to pull them all together into a single unified story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This tip was excerpted from my free online book,

Write Your Novel Step By Step

Get Out Of My Head!!! (A Tip for Writers)

By Melanie Anne Phillips

This tip is excerpted from my book, Write Your Novel Step By Step.  Click the link to read it free on my web site.

In this step, we’ll  explore how to clear your mental decks to make room for all the story development to come.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the next step, we’ll look at what to do with what you’ve written down…

Need personalized story help?


Try my story consultation service for free!

Just email me with a bit about your story,
and I’ll give you some initial feedback and
lay out a customized story development plan.

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 story will ultimately depend on how all these elements stack up at the end, and offer you a palette of shadings, rather than just Happy or Sad, and Success or Failure.

–Melanie Anne Phillips

Write your novel step by step…

Story Development Tip: “Non-Causality”

Interest in your story can be amped up by creating a difference between what an audience is led to expect and what actually happens. A prime example occurs in the Laurel and Hardy film, The Music Box. Stan and Ollie are piano movers. The setup is their efforts to get a piano up a quarter mile flight of stairs to a hillside house. Every time they get to the top, one way or another it slides down to the bottom again through a series of misadventures – Murphy’s Law to the extreme!

Finally, they get it up there only to discover the address is on the second floor! So, they rig a block and tackle and begin to hoist the piano up to the second floor window. As before with the stairs, the winch strains, the rope frays, the piano sways. And just when they get the piano up to the window, they simply push it inside without incident.  Almost invariably, the audience members break into raucous laughter when they realize they have been set-up and duped.

Try applying this technique to your story by creating a series of causal relationships that aren’t really absolute, and then breaking that causality for comic or dramatic or ironic effect.

Write your novel or screenplay step by step with our StoryWeaver software…

50 Sure-Fire Storytelling Tricks!

Read my new eBook, 50 Sure-Fire Storytelling Tricks!, for free at http://storymind.com/articles/page11.htm

About the book – It’s not just what you say but how you say it. These fifty powerful and immediately useful “sure-fire” tips, tricks and techniques will super charge your storytelling and add life, interest, and sophistication to your novel or screenplay.