How to Write a Good Story – Part One – The Essence of Story

Writing

On social media across the Internet, there is a single constant refrain- “How do I write a good story?” It comes from new writers eager to make their eBook fortune on Kindle, young adults who want to join in the fanfiction fray, and even experienced writers who are looking to up their game. It’s lead to a huge boom in How-To writing books, and an even bigger boom for those who offer their services to writers like editors, cover designers and marketers. The editors especially are in demand, because the truth is most writers are flying blind when it comes to writing stories.

Don’t believe me? Go on a social media forum with writers and ask them a simple question like “How do I write a good book?” or even “What is a story?” and you’ll get a thousand different answers thrown at you, because the truth is most of them don’t know the answer to either of those questions.

Oh, they know pieces of it, and the more savvy and experienced ones have pieced together quite a bit of knowledge on the topic. Mostly though, new writers will get advice like “follow the three act structure”, “have a gripping main character”, and various other sage advice about what worked for the writers who respond.

Because most writers learn to write stories by writing them, and they do that by consuming the work of lots of other writers and then copying what seemed to work for those other writers. They basically write by instinct, and then through making mistakes and finding what works, and what doesn’t, they become better writers. This is a time-honored way to learn any art, and some would argue that it’s the best way because it preserves a creative spirit of originality and helps new generations of artists add to the great body of human culture.

When it comes to writing, those people are wrong.

If that was true, why do we keep writing the same stories over and over again? Why do almost all stories follow the same basic structure, no matter the culture or level of literacy? Why do we keep seeing the same stories over and over again, generation after generation?

The answer is pretty simple- because there IS a hardwired, human pattern to storytelling that we follow over and over again- exactly because we’re human.

[Now, the followers of Joseph Campbell are all nodding their heads right now and going “Of course there is, dummy! The Hero’s Journey!” But I’m going to argue that while Campbell was on the right track, he also complicated things up more than they needed to be. So simmer down, Jack!]

One of the nice parts about living in the age we do is that researchers on big questions have been able to use things like Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) to look inside the human brain in real time and look at what people’s brains are doing during certain activities. Unsurprisingly, a few of those researchers decided to find out what happens inside the human brain when people consume stories, and they learned many interesting things.

One thing they learned is that the human brain is optimized for learning from the experiences of not just ourselves, but from the experiences of others. We don’t have enough time to experience everything ourselves, so instead our brains crowdsource information and make a point of learning from how other people did things. It’s a survival mechanism left over from the days when we were cavemen, and every bit of knowledge about the world we had could be a key to living another day. The ones who didn’t learn fast died faster.

So, what are stories then?

Stories are people sharing their experiences so that others can learn from them. They’re us telling the world what someone did when they were faced with a problem, so they can learn from that person’s experiences and gain knowledge about the world and the human experience.

So therefore, at it’s core, for something to be a story it has two requirements:

  1. A character does something.
  2. The character’s choices produce results.

This is because our brains are trying to learn from that person’s actions, so obviously they must do something, and those actions must also have results, otherwise we haven’t learned from them.

So, there you are, cause and effect- that’s all that you need to tell a story.

And if I put it that way, you do this every day, right? Anytime you, or your mother, or crazy old grandpa are telling a story, you use this structure- “I did these things, and this was the result.”

That is the root seed from which all storytelling comes- a character does something and gets results.

“I kicked the dog, and he bit me.”

Of course, as you obviously already know, there’s a little more to it than that. Saying “I kicked the dog and he bit me” may be a story, but it’s not exactly a gripping one that’s going to hold an audience spellbound for hours or express your artistic vision.

To tell an interesting story, you need details, the more the better! (But only the right ones…)

Also, there is a simple process all humans go through when approaching a problem and the audience for a story likes to know the details of that process whenever possible.

So, we break those two parts into several clear steps.

A character does something can be broken into several steps:

  • The character has a Need.
  • The character chooses Goal based on that need.
  • The character finds there is Opposition to achieving that goal.
  • The character comes up with a Plan to overcome the opposition.
  • The character takes Action based on that plan.

The character’s choices producing results can also be broken into steps:

  • Results:
    1. The action fails> return to Step 4.
    2. The action succeeds> go to Step 7.
  • The character’s situation has changed because of the results and they’re in a New State.

To make it clearer, let’s give an example.

  • Bob is Thirsty. (Need)
  • Bob decides to get a glass of water. (Goal)
  • Bob finds there are no clean cups. (Opposition)
  • Bob decides to do dishes. (Plan)
  • Bob does the dishes. (Action)
  • Bob now has a clean glass. (Results)
  • Bob drinks a glass of water and feels satisfied. (New State)

Note that this is still extremely simple, but that’s because it’s also infinitely flexible. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Bob getting water or War and Peace, all human stories are using a variation of this structure at their very core and when reduced to the simplest level. If a story doesn’t meet (almost) all of these steps, it isn’t a story to the human brain.

There has to be a character who has a Need and a resulting Goal, who faces Opposition, finds a Plan to overcome it, takes Action and gets Results that will put them in a New State. All of these steps are crucial because otherwise there’s nothing to learn, and the human brain isn’t interested. If I show you a video of Bob walking across the room getting water from the fridge and sitting down to drink it, you’ll get bored because there’s no challenge there (which is where drama comes from) and nothing to learn from.

Let’s go into each of the steps in more detail:

Need:

The character needs a reason to take action, and this reason can be active (they choose to take action), or reactive (someone else forces them to take action), but there must always be a cause for what they do in the story.  Active characters are almost always better, since the audience can learn more from a character who is trying to actively accomplish a goal, and they’re easier to write.

In either case, the character will have a Need, something which is driving them to attain their goal. At its core, this need will usually be based on one of the Basic Human Needs that all humans have- Food, Safety, Sex, Sleep, Companionship, Self-Actualization, and so on. The character tries to fulfill that need through taking action, whether they consciously understand that need exists or not.

This can be as simple as being thirsty and needing a glass of water, or as complex as defending their galactic empire from an alien invasion, but it will always be rooted in a basic human need when it comes down to it. (We don’t tend to things that don’t try to meet a human need in some way.)

Goal:

Goals always fall into one of three simple categories:

  1. Attain
  2. Maintain
  3. Lose

The character either wants something new (attain), they want to avoid losing something that already exists (maintain), or they no longer wish to have something and try to get rid of it (lose). All characters will have one of these three goals, with the details varying by the story. This will be based on solving the problem created by their Need.

Goals will often be based on solving obstacles that prevent the character from achieving a human need rather than directly trying to achieve a human need. (ie Losing weight in order to get sex. Losing weight is the goal, but it is still rooted in the human need of sex.) Directly solving more complex needs can often be hard and painful, so characters will often choose goals that are smaller steps towards that greater need.

Opposition:

If a need can be met without opposition, it usually isn’t worth telling a story about. In fact, often the heart of a story isn’t the need or action being taken to meet that need, it’s the challenges that come with meeting that need. If there’s no opposition to the character’s actions, then the story moves to the New State phase and ends there. (Along with the audience’s interest.)

Opposition can come in any form that prevents the character from achieving their Goals, however these too tend to fall into one of several categories:

  • Active opposition.
  • Passive Opposition.
  • Lack of resources.
  • Lack of ability.

Active Opposition– an opponent who is actively trying to prevent the character from achieving their goal. Usually they have the same (or similar) goal as the main character, and this common goal brings them into direct opposition with each other. Often they also have a superior position to the main character in some way, at least in terms of knowledge, resources, power or ability. (After all, if they weren’t able to give the main character a challenge, they’re not much of an opponent, are they?) Usually, they are also made specifically to exploit the weakness of the main character, thus making them exactly the right person to make the main character’s life difficult.

Passive Opposition– an opponent who stands in the way of the character achieving their goals, but who isn’t pursuing the same goal as the main character. They are pursuing their own goals, but because of their existence/presence it prevents the main character from achieving their goal. Think of this like a sleeping guard dog that prevents a character from sneaking into the house, the parent who says the main character must clean their room before they can go out, or a clerk at a tax office who says the main character must follow procedure before they can have what they want as time is running out.

Lack of Resources– the character has a goal, but lacks the physical resources (time, money, friends, contacts, clothes, equipment, etc) to achieve that goal. This will usually require the character to pursue other smaller goals first (like getting a job to earn money) to achieve this goal.

Lack of Ability– the character has a goal, but lacks the personal skills, requirements, or knowledge needed to reach that goal. This can most often be fixed through training and personal improvement, or occasionally by finding someone else who has the abilities needed and getting them to do it.

Note that a single story can have more than one obstacle to a single goal. Just as there can be big goals and little goals, there can be big obstacles and little obstacles as well, and often the character needs to accomplish several little goals first to be able to accomplish the big final goal.

Plan:

A character with a goal faced by obstacles will need to make a plan, which is the route the character decides to take to achieve their goal. This can be the result of self-reflection, previous results, or gut instinct, and plans can take seconds to make, or hours, or years in the context of the story. This step is actually semi-optional, as sometimes the “Plan” step is skipped over because it’s obvious, or for dramatic effect. (Jumping from Goal to seeing the character in Action to make the audience want to see how the character’s actions will achieve that goal.)

Action:

Action is simply the character trying to follow their plan and seeing what the result is. Again, this can be a simple single movement, or a long and complex project that takes years to finish. The writer may choose to detail every step of the plan, or just a few key steps, or even jump from the beginning to the end of the Action step. However, the character must make a choice and do something, even if their choice is just to sit there and cry.

Results:

Of course, there are really only three possible results:

  • They succeed and achieve their goal.
  • They fail and must either try again or give up.
  • They only partly fail or partly succeed and must either try again or give up.

If the character tries again, they go back to the Planning stage, and if they succeed and have met their Need they move on to the New State. If they give up, they have also moved into a New State- but it’s one where they failed to achieve their goal and are dealing with the consequences of that failure.

New State:

If the character achieved their goal, then the story is finished, or (if part of a larger story) then this portion of the story is finished. They have their goal, and are now either satisfied or not satisfied with the result based on the Need they were trying to fulfill.

Often, the character cannot reach a New State without first overcoming some personal flaw, in which case the New State is actually one where the character has changed part of themselves in order to achieve their true (often unconscious) goal.

 

So, there you have it, the fundamental structure humans use when telling stories.

You will see many variations of this formula kicking around online. Whether it’s Dan Harmon’s Story Circle, Chris Vogler’s take on The Hero’s Journey, or Michael Hague’s Six Story Steps, but ultimately, they’re just this very basic formula with extra steps added (or removed) for effect. One expanded version of this formula is John Truby’s Twenty-Two Step Story Structure, which takes a formula like this one (which was partly based on Truby’s 7 Essential Steps) and shows how typical modern novels and films tend to expand on this structure and what they add to it. (His book is highly recommended!)

However, just because something follows the above steps that doesn’t mean it’s a good story, it just means that it meets the basic requirements to be called a story. It only shows a character doing something and getting results, or in other words, showing how an action might play out.

To have a good story, one which is meaningful and the audience actually gets something from, that requires not just a story, but a Moral Argument as well.

(Continued in Part 2.)

The S.P.I.N.E. of Every Good Story

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We know that stories exist because humans use them to learn from each other- they’re a teaching tool we use to pass knowledge and ideas between ourselves. Therefore, it will come as no shock to anyone that audiences must get something from a story to enjoy it. However, not every audience member wants the same thing, and not every good story offers the same things to its audience. That said, for a story to be successful with an audience, they must get at least one of five things (and preferably more than one) from a story, which can be remembered simply by the acronym S.P.I.N.E..

Skills – If a story teaches the audience how to do something, whether it’s growing plants, judging wine, star-ship tactical combat, solving crossword puzzles, or how to get a good night’s sleep, then the audience will consider that story interesting.

Perspective – If a story offers a new way of seeing the world, or conversely, confirms or supports the way the audience already sees the world, then they will likely consider it interesting. In our lives, we only really know our own points of view, and stories let us see the world as others see it, that’s one of the wonderful parts about experiencing a story. On the flipside, we naturally want our own views of the world to be the correct ones, and stories that back up those views will resonate with an audience that wants those views to be true. (This might sound sinister to some, but most popular stories have a version of this buried inside them which acts as a comfort to the audience – “good will always triumph over evil”, “if you work hard you will succeed in life”, “there’s someone out there for everyone”, “there’s justice in this world”, etc.)

Information – If a story offers the audience knowledge about a subject they’re not familiar with, they will consider it interesting. This is different from Skills in that it isn’t teaching the audience how to do something, but giving them information about a topic or topics. This can be history, culture, fashion, sports, nature, geophysics, religion, and everything in between. If the audience is interested in this topic, or made to be interested in it by the presentation of the story, then they’ll stick with it.

Novelty – If the story offers the audience something new or that they haven’t seen before, they will consider it interesting. This can be any aspect of the story from way its told (character, plot, setting, style, structure, etc) to the content (skills, perspective, information) that is new to the audience. Give them something they don’t know, they haven’t seen done, or they haven’t seen done this way, and they’ll be on board.

Emotion – If a story can make the audience feel something, then they will find it interesting. (Although not always enjoyable.) All good stories should make the audience feel something at some point, and certain kinds of stories are even built around producing specific kinds of emotion. (Horror, Thriller, Romance, Erotica, Comedy, Tragedy, etc) If you can elicit emotions from your audience, and its emotions they want to feel ), then they’ll stick with it.

Not every story will contain all five of these things, nor all five things in the same ratios, but if you want an audience to think of a story as being “good” you’ll probably want to think about which ones your story is offering and in what ways. Obviously, not all stories teach the audience how to do something, but most do offer some new information. Similarly, not every audience wants novelty, or at least a lot of it, as sometimes a familiar story gives them comfort and new things can sometimes be challenging.

The key is that the more you’re aware of these elements, and how you’re using them, the better your story can be because you can control and shape them to get the results you want as opposed to just guessing how to satisfy your audience.

Rob

DNA Podcast 033 – Writing Formulas

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Lester Dent

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In this episode, Rob and Don sit down to discuss story structure. They explore the origins of the 3-act structure, discuss Chris Fox’s Write to Market strategy, and break down the Lester Dent Master Pulp Writing Formula and Michael Moorcock’s How to Write a Book in Three Days method. All this, and why Buffy the Vampire Slayer is really a ninja, are waiting for you in this episode of the Department of Nerdly Affairs!

Writing Creative Procedural Fiction

Heroic Journeys are pretty much the gold standard for modern fiction writing. The vast majority of stories written in any genre are heroic journeys wherein a weak/flawed character grows, develops, and eventually becomes a hero. The standard hero’s journey formula runs like this:

  1. Introduction of the flawed character and their world as it is.
  2. Character is forced out of that world by some event.
  3. Character embraces new situation and tries to overcome it.
  4. Character faces first big challenge and overcomes it.
  5. Character faces first major setback.
  6. Character recovers from major setback.
  7. Character faces antagonist/final challenge.
  8. Character wins and enters new world with their flaw overcome.

For those keeping track, the above would be the generic Heroic Journey plot of a 4-act story (each two parts being 1 “act”) and while there’s some variation, most stories run like this. An introduction, the character entering the new situation, the character learning on a “try/fail” cycle until they get strong enough to face their true enemy and walking out a newly minted hero at the other end.

That’s great for a standard heroic journey story, but does it work for a story where the main character is trying to build/create something? I refer to that kind of story as a type of “Procedural Fiction” because we’re watching the main character follow a procedure- a set of steps that need to followed in order to accomplish a goal.

I would say there are three kinds of procedural fiction:

  1. Standard Procedurals
  2. Creative Procedurals
  3. Exploratory Procedurals.

In a Standard Procedural, the character is following a set of steps which are already proscribed by someone else to accomplish a goal. The most common example of this is Police Procedurals (think CIS or NCIS, or The Mentalist, or whatever is popular this season) where the story is the characters following standard police procedure (or their variant thereof) as they try to investigate the murder of the week. The procedural structure of the steps they must follow give the story its form, and there really isn’t any heroic journey happening here, just witty main characters interviewing people and trying to sort through clues to reach a conclusion.

The key to a Standard Procedural is that they’re following a set of steps already created by someone else, whereas in a Creative Procedural this isn’t entirely true. In a Creative Procedural, a character is trying to build something or accomplish a goal which has a set of steps to complete it, but those steps may be somewhat general or vague. Unlike a Standard Procedural (first examine the body, then interview the witnesses, then look for motive, etc) a Creative Procedural is about a person trying to do a task which is as much an art as it is a science.

For example, let’s say a main character is trying to open a business, which is a common enough Creative Procedural in Japanese Dramas. (The Japanese adore Creative Procedurals with a passion, and produce a lot of them.) While there are known steps to starting a business like “write up a business plan”, “find a location”, “create a sign”, and others, there are also a lot of really vague elements like “find something you’re passionate about” or “master the skill that you’ll be selling to your clients” or “find a mentor” that there’s a lot of different directions and ways to go about it. Whether they’re trying to learn to play the piano at a master level, become a golf pro, become a manga writer/artist, master Poker, or whatever the main character’s goal is, a Creative Procedural is about them navigating the world of possibilities involved with following their chosen pursuit.

[Examples- Breaking Bad (TV), Game of Thrones (TV), Bakuman (manga), Team Medical Dragon (J-Drama), One Piece (TV Anime), most Xianxia fiction.]

Finally, there are Exploratory Procedurals. Simply put, an Exploratory Procedural is one where the main character is making up the procedure as they’re going along. They’re following vague logical steps to do what they’re doing, but they’re also breaking new ground or trying to do something that has never been done before in quite this way. A great example of an Exploratory Procedural is The Martian (movie, book, doesn’t matter) where we have a guy left behind on Mars after a failed attempt to set up a base who must figure out how to survive until someone can come help him. He has lots of knowledge, knows the scientific method, and has some clear goals he wants to reach, but there isn’t a set procedure he can follow to reach those goals- so he makes them up as he goes along in a series of trial and error attempts.

[Examples- The Walking Dead (TV), Overlord (TV Anime), Robinson Crusoe (book), The Monkey King (Chinese Classic), We Are Legion (We are Bob) (book), GATE (TV anime), The Cosmic Computer (book), Battlestar Galactica (TV)]

 

So, to summarize:

A Standard Procedural is about following a well paved road between cities.

A Creative Procedural is about following a series of paths and side trails through the forest to reach a destination.

An Exploratory Procedural is about making a path through the forest using a compass and a machete.

 

However, it’s about the try/fail cycle and how it’s implemented where the heroic journey and the procedural have a parting of the ways.

A Heroic Journey is built on setbacks (the try/fail cycle mentioned above) where the main character fails most of the time but succeeds just enough to keep them going until they reach their goal- each “failure” making them stronger through adversity. The drama in a heroic journey is about the character constantly struggling uphill, and even when they win they often lose in some way, unless it’s the big win at the end that makes the audience feel satisfied.

Procedurals, at least Creative Procedurals and Exploratory Procedurals, don’t work on a try/fail cycle. In fact, if anything, they work on a try/fail/succeed cycle, with the “succeed” part being a key difference between them and the Heroic Journey. In The Martian, for example, if the main character had failed at the end of each of his attempts to grow potatoes or jury rig the heating system, he would have died. Each of those were challenges he had to meet and succeed at to keep the story going. Just the same as a young Manga Artist needs to get a few hits under his belt or else he can’t get anyone to publish his work because he’s in an industry where you can only build on your successes.

So, if that’s the case, what would a structure for an Exploratory or Creative Procedural story look like?

  1. A character has a goal. (Usually created by some inner Need, but not always.)
  2. The character begins working toward achieving that goal and tries to solve the first roadblock they encounter, succeeds.
  3. The character is faced with a new more difficult problem, works to solve it (often building on what they learned the last time and acquiring new skills/knowledge/resources) and succeeds.
  4. The character is faced with a new even more difficult problem, works to solve it (often building on what they learned the last time and acquiring new skills/knowledge/resources) and succeeds.
  5. Repeat as needed.
  6. The character faces the penultimate problem that requires they use the knowledge, resources and skill they gained from solving all the previous problems to overcome. They do it, and succeed.
  7. The character has now gone from victim of the situation to master of the situation.

And each of the “try/fail/succeed” cycles above (2-5) would usually involve the following steps:

  1. Figure out what the problem is.
  2. Try to solve it using current skill/knowledge/resources.
  3. Fail to solve it.
  4. Figure out what changes will be needed to solve it. (Skill/Knowledge/Resources)
  5. Acquire what’s needed to solve it.
  6. Solve it.

Of course, this would get dull if it’s the same thing over and over, so a writer will need to vary this up a little by skipping steps, rearranging steps, adding steps. A common trick is to vary the thing which the character needs to solve the problem (skills/knowledge/resource) so that it keeps the pattern fresh and has the character going in different directions and experiencing new things. This is also why the Japanese tend to love this type of story so much, because they use it to work in actual skills and knowledge the writer has and is teaching the audience through the story.

Also, the writer must always be planting the seeds of the next level of the challenge in the audience’s minds. Sometimes this is self-evident (“I have to become a Sushi Chef, so first I must master making rice, and then cutting fish, and then…”) and sometimes this needs to be set up at the start (“If we don’t succeed in just one year, Mother Earth will disappear!”) and sometimes it’s all about throwing new challenges at the heroes every time they think they’ve won.

And this is one of the Creative/Exploratory Procedural’s other great strengths. It can be as long or short as the writer wishes it to be, and can fit nicely into segmented boxes, which makes it great for serial forms of storytelling. Each Episode/Chapter/Arc is a try/fail/succeed cycle covering a different aspect of the character’s progression, and there can be as many of them as the writer needs to fill up whatever space needs to be filled. (If a task normally has 5 steps to mastering it, then there are 5 story arcs about the character mastering that task. If there are 150 Pokemon to catch, then you can have 150 episodes of catching Pokemon…. Unless you keep adding more… and more… and more…)

Which leads me to a word of caution- Procedurals live or die on novelty and creativity. As soon as they become old-hat and the audience knows all the variations of the formula, the audience will get bored really quickly and stop caring. So while the strength of a procedural is that it can be as long or short as the writer wishes, a good procedural writer knows when the say enough is enough and end it. Sometimes this too is self-evident (the character has reached a level where they can’t go any higher or expand any further) and sometimes the writer just needs to follow their guts and quit while they’re ahead. (Leave while they still want more, and they’ll be back for your next story.)

One last important thing to note about Creative and Exploratory Procedurals is that they’re… well… creative! By their very nature, these two types of Procedurals are about a character (or characters) making and accomplishing something. While a heroic journey is about the transformation of the character(s), the heart of a Creative Procedural is about transforming the world around the character. At the end of a Creative Procedural, the world the character lives in is a different place in some way (big or small), while the main character themselves may or may not have really changed that much at all. (This doesn’t mean that the Main Character in a Creative Procedural can’t completely transform, just that they don’t HAVE to transform like they do through a Heroic Journey.)

I think this is why I find them so attractive. They’re positive stories, about characters using their intelligence to accomplish goals and shape the worlds they live in. They’re about building up and making new things like businesses, communities, organizations, or societies. As opposed to heroic journeys, which are all too often about kicking the designated bad guy’s butt in ways which are all too often more destructive than creative.

And a little creative positivity can go a long way in a hard world.

Rob

What Jackie Chan can teach us about writing action

Following up my post on what writers can learn from Akira Kurosawa, I’m going to do another blog post on writing- this time based on the nine rules that Tony Zhou outlines in the video below about how Jackie Chan masters action comedy. Naturally, it will be easier to follow if you’ve watched the video, so check it out first.

Jackie Chan – How to Do Action Comedy from Tony Zhou on Vimeo.

Action is primarily a visual creature, and is a natural fit for film, but can you do it well in prose? I would say yes, but let’s see if Tony’s 9 Jackie Chan “rules” can be applied to prose writing.

Jackie Chan’s 9 Principles of Action Comedy (as noted by Tony Zhou)

1. Start with a DISADVANTAGE

This one is pretty obvious. If your goal is to build tension, then having your character at a disadvantage in a scene in a must, whether they’re supposed to fight or just trying to run away. The more of a disadvantage you can put them at, the better, although I should note that Jackie primarily makes action-comedies. There is a reason Batman doesn’t most start fights at a disadvantage- because he’s a kick-butt reader surrogate and is supposed to make the reader feel powerful. If you take that away from the reader, they’re not going to like it much. (Although even Batman does occasionally start fights at a disadvantage for variety and dramatic purposes.)

 

2. Use the ENVIRONMENT

Tony is actually combining two points here in the video under one.

The first point he brings up is that Jackie uses the environment in his fights, which makes them more real and unique in a sense. If you can offer your reader something they haven’t seen before in a fight, like a character fighting with a ladder, then that can show that you’ve actually taken the time to think through this fight scene and make it interesting for the reader. If you emphasize the environment properly, it gives the reader a sense of place and can be used to help set up shots.

Speaking of which, the second point is really to set up your shots! If you want to have an action scene, then give the reader a sense of the terrain before and during the action sequence. Don’t be afraid to foreshadow or even lead a little with your descriptions like Jackie does in his movies. In the example they give, Jackie does a shot of a stuntman being knocked down a spiral staircase before he himself uses it shortly for his own actions- and there’s no reason you can’t do this kind of thing too! Use people, objects and even descriptions to lead the reader through the action, and make it easier for them to follow.

 

3. Be CLEAR in your shots

This is a trickier one for writers than you might think.

Normally, writers increase the pace of action scenes by using short, clear sentences and paragraphs to increase the pace of the action and story. They also focus on the very key elements of the events happening to keep from letting description bog down the action as it’s happening. However, to be truly clear about what’s happening you need to describe the action, and you need to do it in a way that paints a clear picture in the reader’s mind so they can follow it without being confused.

So you have to find a balance:

  • Too much description = slow reading and pacing.
  • Too little description = reader confusion.

This is one of the things that makes writing action so difficult- finding that sweet spot that conveys a clear image of the events for the reader to experience and enjoy while at the same time not bogging them down with too much, or disorienting them with too little detail.

 

4. Action & Reaction in the SAME frame

Not sure if this one can apply to writing. The only think I can think of goes back to #3, about being clear in your shots and #2b about letting the reader know where the action is going before it does. If any of you have other thoughts on how this one could be applied, please leave it in the comments.

 

5. Do as many TAKES as necessary

For writers, this is really about how much time you want to spend on your action scenes and effort you want to put into detailing them out. Especially in the modern self-publishing world where getting books out fast is often linked with financial success, it can be hard to spending days, weeks (or months) planning an action scene or sequence, but there are times when quality really is linked with time spent.

Again, like most things with writing, it comes down to balance.

You need to know what you’re capable of, and how much time you’re willing to spend, and then use that time accordingly. If you think you’ll benefit from storyboarding out a whole action scene first and you have the time, then why not? (It might also make a great extra for loyal readers, or to get people to join your mailing list.) But, if you’ve got two weeks to finish this book or the rent doesn’t get paid next month, then you’ll probably want to just do what you can and move on.

 

6. Let the audience feel the RHYTHM

This goes back to #3- let the audience understand what’s happening and they’ll be able to appreciate it more. Also, too many quick cuts (jumping from different points of view, or jumping between simultaneous action at different places) can prevent the reader from really appreciating what’s happening. Both POV jumping and jumping between scenes are effective tools for dramatic pacing in a book, but if you overuse them the reader can get confused or tired by it- so as with garlic and salt in cooking, use them in controlled moderation to avoid leaving a bad taste in the audience’s mouth.

 

7. In editing, TWO good hits = ONE great hit

This is a film editing trick, and I don’t think it can be applied to prose action writing. However, if anyone has some thoughts feel free to note them in the comments section below, I’d be interested to hear them.

 

8. PAIN is humanizing

This one is pretty self explanatory- we empathize with suffering, especially suffering we’ve experienced ourselves, and it brings us closer to the characters and makes them more human. Don’t be afraid to let your characters be hurt, even if it’s just superficial hurts it still reminds us that they’re people and made of flesh and blood like the audience.

Obviously, it also adds to the drama when characters are hurt, because it puts them at a disadvantage in the action and forces them to try even harder to get out of the hole they’re in. If your characters are macho tough-guys, then maybe you don’t want to show them being hurt too much, but if you want the audience to really feel for the character, showing them suffer is a great way to do it. Writer Chuck Palahniuk (of Fight Club fame) once advised that if you want to connect with the reader describe a character’s feet or their mouth, because both places are filled with nerve endings and give us intense sensations in real life.

 

9. Earn your FINISH

Story can be said to be about struggle. Nobody wants to watch a story about a guy who just walks through park and nothing happens, or someone doing something that isn’t hard or difficult for them to do in some way. While you don’t have to make it a series of ever-stronger bosses like a Jackie Chan movie, you should do your best to show that the character had to overcome something (mental, physical, emotional or social, or some combination thereof) to reach their goals and achieve victory.

Don’t be afraid to stack the odds against your characters, and let them have to do something outside of their comfort zone to win. Of course, if you overdo it, it can become ridiculous, so make sure your poor character does at least have a slim chance of winning in the reader’s minds.

 

Final Thoughts

I’ve always been fascinated by the art of writing action in prose form. I think it comes from growing up on comics and action films and then transitioning into literature, where unfortunately the ability to write action varies widely by writer. It’s not an easy skill, and it’s one I struggled with when I was writing my Little Gou short stories and novel, especially since that was literally an attempt to write kung-fu adventures! I don’t claim to have mastered it, and I think I learned a few new tricks watching this video and thinking through this article, but in any case it’s a skill any writer can benefit from developing- whether you’re writing kung fu in old China, car chases through Cairo, or gunfights under the Texas sun.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this! Please comment below!

Rob

Good Advice from Author Scott Sigler about Writing Your First Novel

Structuring Your Story

Today I came across the blog Storyfix, and author Larry Brook’s 10-part Story Structure Series. In it, Brooks lays out his take on the 4-act structure, and presents it in a straightforward and easily useable way for writers of screenplays and novels to make use of when planning their work. Here’s a sample:

Introducing the Four Parts of Story

Some writers like things in nice little boxes.  Others, not so much.  Either way, you can look at your story like a box, of sorts.  You toss in all kinds of stuff – pretty sentences, plot, sub-plot, characters, themes, stakes, cool scenes – then stir it up and hope that somehow, by the grace of God, it all ends up in some orderly fashion that your reader will enjoy.

That’s one way to write a novel or screenplay.  At the very least, you’ll have to pour the box out and start over again, time after time, before any of what’s inside begins to make sense to anyone but you.  You can get there doing it this way… but there’s abetter way.

If fact, if this is how you go about telling your story, you’ll be reorganizing your box, time after time, until you do finally stumble upon the structure you are about to learn here. Or, more likely, you’ll abandon the project altogether, because nobody will buy it until you do.

Tough to hear, but it’s true.

Now think of that box as a vessel holding four smaller boxes.  Which means, things just got clearer, if not easier.  Imagine that each box is different, designed to hold scenes that are categorized and used differently than the other boxes.

In other words, each box has a mission and a purpose unique unto itself.  And yet, no single box contains the whole story.  Only all four, viewed sequentially, do that job.  Each scene you write is in context to whichever box it goes into.

Imagine that these boxes are to be experienced in sequence.  There’s the first box, the next box, the one after that, and then a final box.  Everything in the first box is there to make the other boxes understandable, to make them meaningful.

Everything in the second box is there to make the first box useful by placing what we’ve come to root for in jeopardy.  The first box may not make sense until the second box is opened, and when it is, the reader is in there with your hero.

Everything in the third box takes what the second box presents and ratchets it up to a higher level with a dramatic new context.  By now we are in full rooting mode for the hero of the story.

Everything in the fourth and final box pays off all that the first three boxes have presented in the way of stakes, emotional tension and satisfaction.

The things that go into any given box go only into that box.  Each has its own mission and context, its own flavor of stuff.  Or, more to the point, scenes.

When you lay out the four boxes in order, they make perfect sense.  They flow seamlessly from one to the next, building the stakes and experiences of the previous box before handing it off to the one that follows.

If you take something out of one box and put it into another, the whole thing can go sideways.  Only by observing the criteria and context of each box with your scenes will the entirety of the collective boxes make sense.

When you add something to the mix – when you’re wondering what to write next – you need to put it into the right box or the whole thing will detonate.

Because the box tells you what it needs.  And it will accept nothing else.

And that, folks, is the theory and opportunity of four-part story structure in a nutshell.

It took me about 90 minutes to read the entire series of articles (which are like a condensed 10-chapter textbook on story structure), and I found that even for someone as familiar with story structure as myself it was still an interesting read. Brooks presents his ideas in a clear approachable fashion, and the way he frames and explains his way of structuring a story is insightful.

One thing I got from the article is the realization that I’m what Brooks calls a “Blueprinter”, which is another take on the whole Plotter/Panster dichotomy. A Blueprinter outlines the key elements of the story structure, but not the details, and then just writes the parts in between those key points. So far, that seems to be the best way to write for me, since I like an element of improvisation, but at the same time I need to know where I’m going so I can direct my writing towards that goal. I’m still trying different styles of planning stories, but this resonated as it’s already something I’m doing.

The one critique of this series I have is that I found the articles tent to get less specific and more vague as they go along. The initial articles are pretty solid, but the later ones (like the one on Pinch Points) get extremely unclear as to what exactly he wants the reader to do with this idea. (Short version- Pinch Points are where the audience (but not necessarily the hero) gets to see what the antagonists are really up to and how screwed the protagonist really is, so that we can build tension.)  He also pretty much ignores the whole issue of climax and how the Second Plot Point is a lead-in to that climax. I can forgive some of this because how a story ends can really vary a lot depending on who writes it, and it’s hard to set down hard and fast guidelines, but I have seen other writing instructors (like Blake Snyder) do it better.

Speaking of Snyder, Brooks has his own version of the Beat Sheet to go along with his story structure, which you might find useful to take a look at after you’ve read the articles. (Since it’s a condensed version of that advice.)

In any case, this series is definitely worth reading, especially if you’re someone who has trouble with structure or are trying to figure out the best way for you to plan your work. The way he presents the parts of a story as working together is pretty solid, and I will be taking some of what he says to heart when thinking about and planning my own stories. Overall, I found this series to be an elaboration on Lester Dent’s Formula in many ways, and I think that’s a good thing, since he takes what Dent offers and reframes it in a way that works for stories as a whole, not just pulp adventure works.

Rob

Classic 12-Chapter Murder Mystery Formula

(Note: This has been floating around the internet for years, and I don’t know who first wrote it (if anyone does, let me know!) but it’s worth archiving and Camp Nanowrimo starts next week, so here it is.)

The classic mystery is popular fiction which follows a specific formula. Clever writers may try to change the formula, but the most clever will cling to it for a very good reason. They work within the bounds of the formula because it works!


The following outline serves the modern mystery novel, as defined by editors and publishers. A typical story will contain 60,000 to 65,000 words (205 manuscript pages) and will be divided into 12 chapters, each approximately 17 pages in length.

The Classic 12-Chapter Mystery Formula

Act I

Introduction of the crime (mystery) and the sleuth

Chapter 1

A. Disclose the crime and mystery to be solved. The crime must capture the imagination. It should have been committed in an extraordinary way and either the victim the perpetuator, or both, should be unusual. Give the reader enough information about the victim to make them truly care that the perpetrator is found out and that justice is served.

B. Early in the story, clues should be revealed which suggest both physical and psychological aspects of the initial crime. Those clues should point to suspects and motive which will cary the sleuth to the end of Act I. Some clues should point the sleuth in the right direction, others may not be obvious or be recognized as actual clues unto later in the story.

C. Introduce the sleuth who will solve the crime early, and have him or her do or say something very clever or unexpected which will establish that person as unique. Create this character with care. His or her personality should be interesting enough to sustain the interest of the reader to the very last page. (or through an entire series of books). It is not necessary to disclose all aspects of the sleuth’s personality at the onset. Let the description unfold gradually to sustain interest. Do reveal enough background to let the reader understand the world in which the protagonist functions. (Small town sheriff, Scotland Yard detective, Pinkerton agent in the old West, country squire, investigative reporter in New York City, etc.)

D. Ground the reader in the time and place where the crime occurs. It is often useful to include some sort of symbol, an object or a person, in the opening scene which serves as a metaphor for what occurs in the story. The reappearance of this symbol at the conclusion of the story will create a certain organic unity.

E. Begin with a dramatic event. Some writers offer a prologue, describing the execution of the crime in detail, as it occurs, possible from the point of view of the victim or perpetrators. The same information could also be revealed by a character, through dialogue. Sufficient details should be furnished to allow the reader to experience the event as though he or she were actually there. Another good opening would be to put the sleuth in a dire situation and allow detail of the crime to unfold in due course.

Chapter 2

A. Set the sleuth on the path toward solving he mystery. Offer plausible suspects, all of whom appear to have had motive, means and opportunity to to commit the crime. Select the most likely suspects, and have the sleuth question them. One of these suspects will turn out to be the actual perpetrator.

B. At the approximate mid-point of Act 1, something should occur which makes it clear to the reader that the crime is more complicated than originally thought. Hints may be given to allow the reader to actually see possibilities not yet known to the sleuth.

Chapter 3

A. The sub-plot should be introduced. The plot will continue to maintain the progress of the story, but the sub-plot will carry the theme, which is a universal concept to which the reader can identify. Sub-plots tend to originate either in a crisis in the sleuth’s private life, or in the necessity of the sleuth to face a dilemma involving a matter of character, such as courage or honesty.

B. The ultimate resolution of the sub-plot with demonstrate change or growth on the part of the protagonist, and will climatic on a personal or professional level. That climax may coincide with, or occur as prelude to the climax of the main plot. The sub-plot may be a vehicle for a romantic interest or a confrontation with personal demons of the sleuth. The author can manipulate the pace of the novel by moving back and forth between the plot and sub-plot.

Act II

Direct the investigation toward a conclusion which later proves to be erroneous.

Chapter 4

A. Reveal facts about suspects, through interrogations and the discovery of clues.

B. Flight, or disappearance of one or more suspect.

C. Develop a sense of urgency. Raise the stakes or make it evident that if the mystery is not solved soon, there will be terrible consequences.

Chapter 5

A. The investigation should broaden to put suspicion on other characters.

B. Information gathered through interviews or the discovery of physical evidence, should point toward the solution, although the relevance may not yet be apparent.

Chapter 6

A. The sleuth’s background is revealed as the sub-plot is developed. Tell the reader what drives the protagonist, what haunts or is missing in his or her life.

B. Make it clear that the sleuth has a personal stake in the outcome, either because of threat to his or her life, or the possibility of revelation of matters deeply disturbing to the protagonist on an emotional level.

Act III

Change of focus and scope of the investigation. This is the pivotal point in the story where it become evident that the sleuth was on the wrong track. Something unexpected occurs, such as the appearance of a second body, the death of a major suspect, or discovery of evidence which clears the most likely suspect. The story must take a new direction.

Chapter 7

A. Reveal hidden motives. Formerly secret relationships come to light, such as business arrangements, romantic involvement’s, scores to be settled or previously veiled kinships.

B. Develop and expose meanings of matters hinted at in Act I., to slowly clarify the significance of earlier clues.

Chapter 8

A. The sleuth reveals the results of the investigation. The reader, as well as the protagonist and other characters, are given an opportunity to review what is known and assess the possibilities.

B. The solution of the crime appears to be impossible. Attempts to solve the crime have stymied the sleuth. Misinterpretation of clues or mistaken conclusions have lead him or her in the wrong direction, and logic must be applied to force a new way of grasping an understanding of the uncertainties.

Chapter 9

A. Have the sleuth review the case to determine where he or she went wrong.

B. Reveal the chain of events which provoked the crime.

C. The crucial evidence is something overlooked in Act I, which appeared to have been of little consequence at the time it was first disclosed. That evidence takes on new meaning with information disclosed in Act III.

D. The sleuth (and perhaps the reader, if a keep observer) becomes aware of the error which remains undisclosed to the other characters.

Act IV

Solution

Chapter 10

A. The sleuth weighs the evidence and information gleaned from the other characters.

B. Based on what only he or she now knows, the sleuth must seek positive proof to back up the yet undisclosed conclusion.

Chapter 11

A. Resolution of the sub-plot

B. The protagonist, having been tested by his or her private ordeal, is strengthened for the final action leading to the actual solution of the mystery.

Chapter 12

A. The Climax – a dramatic confrontation between the sleuth and the perpetrator in which the sleuth prevails. The more “impossible” the odds have been, the more rewarding the climax will be.

B. Resolution – Revelation of clues and the deductive process which lead to the solution. Establish that the case has been solved and justice has been served to the satisfaction of all involved (except, the villain).

Tracking Your Writing Progress

While you wouldn’t normally associate the art-driven author with something numbers-driven like a spreadsheet, the two actually go very well, together. Many authors use Excel and Google Sheets to track their word counts in an effort to improve their performance and to stimulate their productivity.

It’s a kind of psychological hack to be able to see your word counts rise each day and feel accomplished and knowing that you’re making actual progress. So recently, I decided to start tracking my own word output in an experiment to see how it would improve my daily writing (or not). As a result, I went through quite a few spreadsheets to find one that would work for me, and I thought I’d share some of the better finds.

When you start hunting for writer’s word-count spreadsheets, one of the first names that will start popping up is Svenja Liv, and rightly so, as she makes word tracking spreadsheets that are literally works of art. She also makes ones specifically for Nanowrimo, so whether you want yearly or just Nano stats, this page is it!

SvenjaLivScreenshot

 

Some people have even turned the daily word count thing into a game called The Magic Spreadsheet, and formed a whole writer’s community around it. If you think a little gamification would improve your writing, maybe that’s the way to go for you.

If you want something more weekly and specific, then you might like Jenny Trout’s Big Damn Writing Tracker spreadsheet. It even has quotes in it to keep you motivated to write as you’re recording the wordcount from your latest round of binge writing. It’s also nice because it has spots so you can note what project you were working on to produce which words.

However, my personal favourite is Keith Dumble’s Amazing Mechanical Wordcount Tracker which I copied into my Google Drive so that I can update my word count on my phone or wherever I might be writing.

In fact, I should point out that Google Drive/Sheets will import Excel files, so that if you find a spreadsheet you adore and don’t have Excel on your computer, you can always just upload it to Google Drive to use it.

They key point is, try tracking your wordcount- you might just find it really works for you!

Rob

I signed up for Camp NaNoWriMo

Well, it looks like my July is going to look a whole lot like this…

Typelikecrazy

Registration for Camp NaNoWriMo‘s July session opened yesterday, and being the fool I am I decided to sign up. I’m always looking for ways to improve my writing and do more of it, and I figure this will make sure I get at least 50,000 words done on a book this Summer. I will be publishing my second Novel- Little Gou and the Crocodile Princess in the coming months, and it’s time to get another book ready for editing. Of course, I have to finish writing it first!

So, my plan is to spend June writing/finishing short works and editing Crocodile Princess and preparing for Camp NaNoWriMo, and then dedicating myself 100% to writing something longer in July. As I’ve never even done regular NaNoWriMo before, it will be interesting to try. When it starts, I’ll try to update my blog on how I’m doing, maybe turn it into a bit of a journal of my experiences. We’ll see!

Rob