I’ve been wanting to do a few YouTube videos about storytelling for a while, and finally finished the first one. Let me know what you think!
I’ve been wanting to do a few YouTube videos about storytelling for a while, and finally finished the first one. Let me know what you think!
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:
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’s choices producing results can also be broken into steps:
To make it clearer, let’s give an example.
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:
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.)
Goals always fall into one of three simple categories:
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.
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– 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.
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 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.
Of course, there are really only three possible results:
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.
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.
Anyone who reads my blog knows that I’m fascinated by story structure, and recently I’ve been probing the depths of Dan Harmon’s Story Circle. The Story Circle was Harmon’s way to take Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey and make it into something practical but still all encompassing. This isn’t new, Christopher Vogler did something similar in his famous memo, which he later turned into The Writer’s Journey, and other writers have done their own takes as well, such as Chris Woo’s fascinating take on it. This is possible because Campbell wasn’t writing a book about writing, but a book about comparative mythology, so he left the more practical applications of his work to others.
In any case, I’ve taken to Harmon’s Story Circle for its simplicity and practicality for writers. I won’t reiterate the details whole thing here (read about it on his original Channel 101 posts, which start here, but this is the most important one), but you can watch this video which covers the points of the thing pretty nicely.
So basically in simplest form it looks like this:
1 – You (a character is in a zone of comfort)
2 – Need (but they want something)
3 – Go (they enter an unfamiliar situation)
4 – Search (adapt to it)
5 – Find (find what they wanted)
6 – Take (pay its price)
7 – Return (and go back to where they started)
8 – Change (now capable of change)
Which is pretty good, and covers a lot of ground. But, as I was trying it out with different stories, I realized something- it actually resembles another story plotting approach utilized by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park fame. Now theirs, which I covered here, is a lot simpler, as it’s basically just about turning story outlines into series of cause and effect relationships using words like BUT, AND SO/THEREFORE, and MEANWHILE. But, I noticed that if we combine it with Harmon’s Circle, we end up with…
1 – OPEN ON You (a character is in a zone of comfort)
2 – BUT Need (but they want something)
3 – AND SO Go (they enter an unfamiliar situation)
4 – BUT Search (adapt to it)
5 – AND SO Find (find what they wanted)
6 – BUT Take (pay its price)
7 – AND SO Return (and go back to where they started)
8 – THUS Change (now capable of change)
And what do you know? It works! We have a story structure of cause and effect relationships that build up into a heroic journey. Who knew?
I’m still debating about the usefulness and nature of the Hero’s Journey monomyth as an all-encompassing story form, as you’ll hear about in an upcoming DNA podcast where writer Jack Ward and I go at it hammer and tong about the subject, but I will admit that this is a useful tool for writers. I’m always looking for ways to give my stories the solid underlying structure they need to become more satisfying for readers, and this is yet another tool in my writer’s toolkit to try out.
I recently paid a visit to the Sonic Society’s Sonic Speaks podcast to talk with the incomparable Jack Ward about the history of my podcast- Kung Fu Action Theatre. In the interview, we talk about how I got into podcasting, my experience running KFAT, and my eventual decision to stop doing audio drama. Along the way, we discuss writing and the transition of going between being an audio dramatist and a prose fiction writer, and the challenges that come with learning to tell stories in audio before you’ve mastered prose.
It was a fun chat, and I hope we can do it again sometime. It made me think a lot about the differences between writing for audio and prose that I hadn’t considered, and I think I too learn from the exploration. If you’re planning to do Audio Drama, or make the jump from Audio Drama to fiction writing, it would definitely be a good one to listen to.
I had an interesting conversation with my friend MadUnkieG yesterday that I thought I’d share.
We were talking about young adult books and how they age- for example, he said the Corey Doctorow’s Little Brother is already out of date because since it was written and published (2 years ago) there have been so many changes in social networking and how we think about security and computers. I conceded he may in fact be right about Science Fiction, but I countered, however, that Fantasy books fare better than science fiction by dint of being timeless and not set in our world.
That’s when he said something really interesting, he said that Fantasy books age just as badly, but do so in a different way. He claimed that Fantasy books oriented toward youths are usually about children and young people facing their fears and dealing with those fears. They act as a sort of safe exposure to things the young people must deal with as they get older, and most things in young people’s novels are metaphors (intentional or not) for the children’s own lives.
Now this I could see and agree with, but it’s what followed that I found really interesting. He said that the reason young people’s fiction goes out of date is because while some fears are universal and perpetual (fear of the dark, fear of being abandoned, fear of fitting in, etc) there are fears that change as society changes. He said that while former generations (Baby Boomers to Gen-X) were most afraid of monsters that were out to hurt them, that’s not what the current generation is most afraid of- the current generation is in fact afraid of being overwhelmed by the world around them.
In other words, young people today find the world around them even more complex and intimidating than the previous generations did, and it scares the hell out of them. They’re inundated by information and messages, and don’t know how to handle it all and find their place in the world as previous generations did. This is something that older youth novels don’t tend to reflect, because they’re usually about simplification (Fantasy worlds tend to be idealized simple places where good and evil are clear.) not about dealing with hard complex realities.
He felt that there were few Fantasy novels that addressed that, since most were written in the older mode, but that Terry Prachett’s young adult works tended to be some of the best in this area. (Which given how detailed and layered the Discworld setting is, is not a surprising thing to consider at all!)
I am still pondering the implications of what he said (how books become dated, and what children fear today) and I’m not sure how one would incorporate those into writing a young adult book. There’s not much you can do about a book becoming dated, it will naturally happen with the passage of time, but you can try to stick to universal concepts as a way of minimizing the drift. As for what modern young people fear, that’s about knowing what’s in the heads of your audience and working with it- a good idea in any time.
Since some people love their powerpoint, I thought I’d share the following I found on how to make a writer’s step sheet using it. Enjoy!
When I wrote a 1,000 word article, I don’t need an outline. I can keep everything straight in my head. In fact, in many cases, I create an outline and then flesh it out. I can’t possibly keep all of the twists and turns of a novel in my head. I get lost. When I don’t have an extended outline, I can lose my way, or worse yet, spend many hours writing material that I throw away.
You can easily create a stepsheet in any word processing program that provides outlining capabilities, and you can also create a stepsheet using special programs that you can buy on the Internet. You’ll know what’s right for the way that you write. Here’s why I sometimes use Microsoft PowerPoint to create a stepsheet:
- It’s easy for me to drop in one item on one screen.
- I can set Microsoft Powerpoint to display a slide show that displays every slide automatically, or any number of slides–like the slides that comprise chapters 1, 2 and 3 only.
- I can make a voice recording for each slide, and have the PowerPoint show read me the stepsheet. In this way I can hear as well as see the spreadsheet.
- I sometimes export the spreadsheet to a Microsoft Word document, and use it to write my novel.
It’s easy to create a stepsheet in Microsoft PowerPoint. All you need to do is open a new PowerPoint presentation and start typing. However, these tips make it easier for me to use the stepsheet that I create. Perhaps, they will also help you.
An interesting technique that might also be applicable to Audio Drama planning, using each Powerpoint Slide to represent a scene and then having notes and moving them around as needed to structure the show.
Radio Drama Quotes from Radio Tales of the Strange and Fantastic
“Anyone who’s ever listened to radio drama will testify to the fact that a play you hear will (remain) in your mind – twelve years later you’ll remember it vividly. And the reason you’ll remember it vividly is because you’ve done the work… it lives in your imagination.”– John Madden, Director, NPR Star Wars audio dramas
“What secret ingredient does audio theater possess that makes it so seductive…? The answer…lies not in a special ingredient, but in the lack of one. Audio is blind. Audio is the most intensely visual of media precisely because of its sightlessness.”
– Yuri Rasovsky, The Well-Tempered Audio Dramatist
“I still think radio is probably the greatest entertainment medium ever invented. It made the audience work, and I think television audiences don’t have to work—that’s why they fall asleep half of the time.
“…what makes radio really exciting is the all-round creativity of it. The writer creates the original, then the director creates the ambiance for the actors, and the brilliant technicians who manipulate the tapes, dials, sounds and music create the atmosphere. But the most creative of all participants in the joys of radio are the listeners, the audience….The listener is set designer, costume designer, make-up man, and even the casting department. They ‘see’ the characters they hear, then put them into the drama quite literally, in make-up, into the set, the wardrobe, even the mood and atmosphere.”
– Vincent Price, 1970 interview
“Science fiction is perhaps the most important audio theatre genre in the 21st century and if one includes the related genres of horror and fantasy, these works of creative imagination, technical prowess and infinite possibilities are the most entertaining artists in this field have to offer.”
– David “Mark Time” Ossman, Firesign Theatre
The other day I stumbled across a new blog called simply “Audio Drama Review”, done by an anonymous blogger whose stated intent is to provide the “raw unvarnished truth” in an effort to encourage people producing audio drama to improve their work. The writing is sharp and well thought out overall, and for the most part it’s constructive criticism, which I feel is something our little medium has lacked.
One of the problems with being an audio drama producer is that we generally don’t get a lot of feedback for our work (on average, 1 piece of feedback per 100 listeners) and when we do get feedback it tends to be supportive rather than critical. Now, when I say critical I mean critical in the proper sense of the word- ” an effort to see a thing clearly and truly in order to judge it fairly”. Not just attacking, but breaking down, and making suggestions on how things need to be improved via constructive criticism. I myself had to feel around for a long time, improving based on experience and comparing myself with other’s works, because nobody was there to tell me what I was doing right or wrong when I started. So in my opinion one of the things the AD community has needed for a long time is a Simon Cowell or Kevin O’Leary, a skilled observer who throws pity into the wind and gives their honest opinions, good or bad. This may finally be that person.
My only reservation is that so far in an effort to be “honest” the writer of ADR has so far been a little bit polar, with the reviews tending towards the very good and the very bad, and not so much in between. I know some of this is the writer finding their style and position they’re going to take, but the one for Lightningbolt Theatre of the Mind was far more extreme than it needed to be. I hope that their reviews in the future are no less honest, but a bit more constructive.
Update: I’ve had it pointed out to me by Audio Drama Review’s blogger J. Snowe that while his reviews do run the gambit from very favorable to poor, they aren’t as polar as I first believed. I hadn’t read all of his reviews, and it appears I managed to read most of the more extreme cases and missed the more moderate ones. (My own fault for making judgments without reading his complete body of work.) Fair enough. Well, then I guess I have no reservations at all on recommending people to read his blog! ^_^
The Wall Street Journal this week had an article on Fine Rune Productions, one of the higher quality producers of Audio Drama on the net. It’s an amazing coup for our artform, and hopefully will help to get more and more people to give Audio Drama a chance. Congrats Fred!