Sunday, November 24, 2013

Notes For Writers - What, At Its Core, Is A Story?

Last week I taught another 3-day workshop at the Sacramento Fine Arts Center called:

The Hook, The Twist, and The Cliffhanger
What Works, and What Doesn't, in Entertainment Fiction

It was a great group - a dozen writers from as far away as Minnesota, all focused on the most effective ways to write fiction and find an audience for it. As always, the camaraderie, comments, and critique were insightful and fun. The repartee was continuous and funny (writers are very intelligent and quick with the clever, wry observation), and our discussions were interrupted with frequent laughter.
We all - myself included - learned a lot. We went away with new motivation and new friends.
As I've taught more workshops over the last several years, I've realized that there is a strong desire in the writing world for more information about a wide range of subjects connected to writing.
I've decided to periodically do blog posts to add my small contribution to the corner of cyberspace that is devoted to writing.

Here is one called Tell Me A Story. What follows is a short description of those components that make up most popular stories. Farther down is an expanded version.

Tell Me A Story
We are hard-wired to respond to stories that contain certain elements. Tell a story with these elements to the youngest children, and they will identify with the protagonist and demand to know what happens. Children don't need to be taught this response. It is innate.
Look at bestselling novels. Look also at popular movies, which, compared to novels, are simply stories that are somewhat abridged. Movies are great to study because they distill stories down to the most compelling story elements. (A movie usually operates off a screenplay with 90 - 120 pages. The average novel ranges from about 280 pages to 450 pages.)
In all popular stories, the same components appear again and again.

Here Are The Basic Elements Of Popular Entertainment Stories

The story opens with a sympathetic character, the Protagonist/Good Guy, in serious trouble with the Antagonist, which is usually a Bad Guy.
As the character tries to deal with the trouble/Bad Guy, things gets worse.
When the character takes a new approach, the trouble gets even worse.
Just when we think that things couldn't possibly get worse, it gets much worse.
In a final effort to cope with the trouble, the protagonist goes to battle with the Bad Guy/trouble, usually on the Bad Guy/trouble's turf.
Although the protagonist appears to be seriously out-gunned, he wins the battle with persistence, resourcefulness, and ingenuity.
Once the climax is over, the story is wrapped up as fast as possible.

Here is a deeper explanation of the story components:

Tell Me A Story - Expanded

(Joseph Campbell first brought the broad understanding of story to the general public in his book The Hero With A Thousand Faces and also, with Bill Moyers, in the PBS series The Power Of Myth. Campbell explained that all of the great mythic stories along with nearly all popular stories, contain the same elements. Throughout history, disparate cultures independently created stories that all follow this pattern.)

How and why is the protagonist a sympathetic character?

The sympathetic character is our protagonist (the Hero). At the most basic level, she has some goodness. Because she is sympathetic, we identify with her. Why? Because we clearly understand her hopes and dreams, her worries and fears, her yearnings, desires, wants. She has emotions and we understand those emotions. Without emotions, she would be a cardboard character, going through the motions of the story, but we wouldn't care. The hero's emotions are critical. The hero also has flaws, which make her more believable and more sympathetic. The hero's flaws are critical.

What is the trouble?

Trouble is the antagonist or the agent of the antagonist (the Bad Guy). The trouble can also be a non-human bad guy, for example, alcoholism. But almost always the trouble is a very nasty person.

How bad should the trouble be?

The trouble should be as bad as possible. The trouble should be life or death. (Think Shakespeare's tragedies.) If the trouble is the likelihood of actual death, great. If not, the trouble should be the likelihood of the death of all that the character cares about.

What does it mean for the climax to be on the bad guy's turf?

When the protagonist goes into the climactic battle, she steps over the threshold into the “mysterium” (mysterium tremendum is Latin for overwhelming mystery), the antagonist's turf, where previous rules don't apply, where all bets are off, where the unknown appears to be in charge. Even more important, once on the antagonist's turf, the protagonist is hopelessly out-gunned. The antagonist has the advantage of greater power, greater skills, and greater knowledge.

Why does the protagonist's ingenuity matter?

When the protagonist confronts a superior antagonist/bad guy, the only advantage the protagonist has is her persistence and ingenuity. Just when we believe that she is going to succumb to the Bad Guy's superior strength/smarts/preparation, she reveals surprising ingenuity and resourcefulness, and that makes the final difference, allowing her to triumph in spite of overwhelming odds against her.

Why should the resolution be short?

After the climactic battle, the tension is gone. The resolution (the denouement) should wrap up a few loose ends (not necessarily all loose ends) and then be done, always leaving the reader wanting more.

If your fiction follows this pattern, you are well on your way to a story that large numbers of readers will want to read.

Keep on writing!


  1. This reminds me of Kurt Vonnegut's comments about the shape of stories. If you haven't heard this, you might enjoy

    1. Hey Steve,
      Loved the Vonnegut clip! Very fun. (He's one of the all-time greats.)
      Thanks for sending the link.