How M.I.C.E. can help writers.

Cute Mouse

A while ago on the Writing Excuses podcast I heard science fiction author Mary Robinette-Kowal discuss one of her personal favorite ways to structure stories, which is called the MICE Quotient. Mary didn’t come up with the idea, author Orson Scott-Card (another hyphenated writer) did, but Mary seems to be its primary evangelist, so I’ll give her credit for making me aware of it.

The MICE Quotient itself has a few parts, but the main part of it works like this – there are basically four different elements (Card calls them Factors) which make up stories, and those four elements can be used alone or in combination with each other. These four story elements are Milieu, Inquiry, Character, and Event based stories, which line up nicely to form the mnemonic “MICE.”

Milieu – a story about a world or setting, where that setting and how it functions and transforms is the focus of the story. These stories often start when the character enters this world or place, and they finish when the character leaves or comes to be a part of that place. Examples are epic fantasy (Tolkien wrote these kinds of stories), travelogues, dystopian and utopian fiction, and westerns.

Inquiry – a story about learning or acquiring information. These are detective stories, stories of exploration, or stories where new knowledge or skills are gained. They start when a character finds themselves in search of answers to a question (or questions) and they end when the answers are found. (Note, Card calls this one “Idea” and others sometimes call it “Information”, but I prefer Robinette-Kowal’s current use of “Inquiry” because it more elegantly sums up the key focus of these stories – seeking information. (she used to call it ask/answer for a while)

Character – a story where a character changes or transforms. These are stories about inner transformation which happen when some event occurs and then follows the paths that the character takes to reach a new state. The character usually starts unhappy with their current life or situation, and then through a series of experiences finds a new way to be at the end of the story. Romances are character stories, but many stories contain some kind of character transformation element.

Event – a story where an event happens and we follow the effects of that event. These stories are about external events happening around and to the characters. Often these are stories where the world has been made unbalanced, and the characters need to find a way to fix it or adapt to the new situation. It’s a little like someone throwing a rock into a pond, and then watching the ripples result. The story starts with an event and finishes when the effects of that event are done. Most action stories and superhero stories are event stories, as are disaster stories where we watch characters leap about trying to survive.

Each of these elements can be the basis for a whole scene, story, story arc, or novel, and usually most short stories are built around one of them, while most novels are built around many of them combined. (More on that in a bit.) However, their most basic function is to tell us not just what kind of story is being told, but how it begins and ends.

And, once we know where they start and finish, we can then focus on what happens in between. In most cases, this is going to be conflict based, as shown by this chart from Robinette-Kowal’s website:

MICE
this info-graphic is taken from here

However, this isn’t always the case. When that chart was created, it’s clear that Robinette-Kowal was thinking in terms of traditional western conflict-based narratives, however it would also work with stories of interaction like the Japanese tell. In these stories, two or more things interact in a way which produces change.

For example, let’s say we’re telling a story about a tree…

In a Milieu story the story could start with the MC’s (main character’s) family moving into a new home with a tree in the yard, and the story would end with the family moving away and a new family moving in. In between, the story could be about the family’s relationship with the tree and how it sheltered them, gave them fruit, made the clean up leaves, gave them a place to play, and more.

In an Inquiry story, the story would start with people noticing that a tree is sprouting purple fruit, and the story would end with the answer to the question why it was sprouting purple fruit. In between, we could learn that there is a meteor buried underneath the tree and the tree is absorbing weird radiation that causes the fruit to turn purple. Oh, and one in ten people who eat the fruit become immortals, while the other nine become horrible monsters that crave human brains.

In a Character story, the story starts with a man choosing to sit beneath a tree while he mourns the death of his wife, and the story ends with him accepting that death is part of the cycle of life, which he has learned watching the tree go through its seasonal routines. In between, he comes to sit beneath the tree each day to first escape his lonely house, and then later to enjoy being out in the world as his grief is slowly overcome. The character has gone from one internal emotional state to another through interaction with the tree.

In an Event story, an old tree is struck by lightning and left damaged but alive at the start, and then at the end the tree is cut down and turned into benches and tables for the local park. In between, the local people reminise about the place the tree has held in their lives as they discuss what to do about it, finally reaching a conclusion. The event has happened and we followed the results of that event until they settled.

So, as you can see, the MICE Quotient acts as a framework which tells us where a story element starts and finishes. This is useful in short stories or scenes because they often only have one dominant MICE element and so the story’s beginning and end is laid out clearly by what MICE element the story is built around. You just need to know what type of MICE element the story is built around, and you roughly know the shape of the story.

However, that’s only the tip of the iceberg, because in longer and larger stories, the MICE elements are used to structure and track storylines within larger works. And, in fact, most longer stories can have anywhere from a few to a few dozen MICE elements running inside them.

For example, let’s say you have a Romance novel.

At the start, in the introduction act, you set up the major threads of the story.

Milieu : The main character has been forced to move to a new apartment building.

Inquiry : The main character notices that the building manager is acting strangely – why?

Character : The main character is single and lonely.

Event : The main character has lost her job.

Thus logically, the end of the book MUST close those elements to feel satisfying to the reader.

/Milieu : The main character moves in with her new boyfriend in another apartment.

/Inquiry : The main character has learned the building manager was going to burn down the building and stopped him.

/Character : The main character has friends she made in the building, and most of all, found a new firefighter boyfriend by becoming an active member of the community.

/Event : The main character has found a new job as the new building manager.

Every story element in the beginning has been wrapped up by the end, making the odds that the story is satisfying more likely. Each element which is introduced has a counterpart ending, which the writer can plan out, and use to figure out where each piece of the story will start and finish. Leaving the writer to only need to worry about the dreaded middle, but even there the writer knows where they’re going and just needs to figure out how to connect those lines.

Also, while the major story elements should run through the long book or novel, there can also be shorter MICE elements inside the bigger story which start and finish in a particular scene, chapter, or story arc inside the larger work. A single scene could easily be a scene where the character navigates a new environment (milieu), tries to get information (Inquiry), must change themselves (Character), or deal with some new circumstances that have popped up (Event). How far you want to take this, is up to you.

If this whole thing still takes a bit of getting use to, fear not! Mary Robinette-Kowal gave a whole lecture on using this recently as part of Brandon Sanderon’s BYU creative writing series at the start of 2020, and you can watch it below. It also goes into more detail and other ways to use the MICE Quotient in your writing, so give it a watch!

So, what do you think? Would the MICE Quotient be a useful writing tool? How could you use it in thinking about the planning of your stories? I like that she links it with computer code and logic puzzles, because in a very real sense stories are exercises in creating strings of logical events that work together to produce a whole emotional experience in the audience.

Rob

Detective Conan Mystery Formula

Image result for detective conan

The following formula, found on Reddit and submitted by user TeraVonen, is a near perfect summary of the typical 2-part story pattern you find in the mystery anime and manga Detective Conan. Conan is the 4th best selling manga series of all time, and the anime has been on the air for over 20 years, and in that time a definitely formula to how the stories play out has developed. There is still a lot of variety within this formula, but it’s the basis of the majority of Conan episodes which aren’t directly linked to the overarching plot.


The typical murder case Detective Conan episode

Part 1 :

  • Conan goes with some of his usual companions somewhere for leisure.
  • Optional: Conan thinks about some plot progression elements he recently discovered. *
  • Conan’s group run into a group of people. One of them is being a douche to everyone else and then goes somewhere away from the others. Conan will listen a bit to the argument then move on with his day.
  • A scream. Conan and any detective he was with (Heiji, Sera, etc) will go running to the scene. It’s a murder. The person being a douche earlier got killed.
  • The police come to the scene.
  • Optional: The scene might appear as an accident/suicide initially, before the detective confirm it’s actually a murder.
  • Conan starts citing strange things to the police. [Things that Conan notes as being strange about the case or situation- Rob]
  • There are three suspects: The ones who argued with the victim earlier.
  • End of the episode.

Part 2 :

  • The suspects are searched and interrogated. At least one of them has a good motive for the crime.
  • The police discovers new elements related to the crime, but still not enough to determine the identity of the murderer.
  • Conan and the other detectives (if present) are close to the truth, then someone in Conan’s group will bring up a subject or say something unrelated that will make Conan or the other detectives realize how the crime was committed.
  • At this moment, the three suspects want to go home and urge the police to let them go, they will explain again their own versions of the events to show how the murderer wasn’t one of them.
  • This is when the case is resolved, either by one of the adult detectives, Sleeping Kogoro, or Conan himself. The method of murder is explained and the culprit identified. They will deny it, claiming no proof, this is when the detectives will use the “We will find your blood/fingerprints/DNA” card.
  • The culprit admits his crime. His motive is either to punish an unpunished crime, getting blackmailed, or to avenge someone else. [Also hatred and jealousy are common ones- Rob]
  • End of the case, Ending starts.
  • Conan and his group move on from the case usually going home after having their leisure time disrupted.
  • Optional: If there is any plot progression deductions from Conan, they will be shown here. *

[ *  = These refer to the overarching story of the manga, not the individual mystery which this is a summary of. -Rob]


The above formula is best understood by watching a few episodes of Detective Conan (aka Case Closed in English) which can be found on Netflix or (better, because they have more episodes) Crunchyroll. Or, of course, you can also read the manga at various places online. It’s a nifty little mystery story structure for short stories that has been proven to work time and again.

If you wanted to use it for another type of detective story that wasn’t broken into two parts, however, you would need to make a few modifications. The audience knows who Conan is, whereas another detective would have to be quickly introduced. Also, in a short story you probably don’t need to have the suspects explain themselves twice, because that’s just for people who missed/forgot the first half to catch up before the reveal.

Anyhow, this was a great summary of the Conan story formula, so I thought it was worth archiving for future writers. Enjoy

Rob

The Shonen Battle Manga Formula

(This article is the first rough part of what would later become my book Write! Shonen Manga. I’m leaving it up so that people can see how the book evolved, although a lot of it was later revised for the book.)

The Japanese produce more comics than anyone else on Earth, and they are a comic reading culture through and through. As a result, just like during the Pulp Era of American magazine fiction, a number of formulas have evolved which Japanese writers rely on when producing comics. These range from formulas related to character design (how to draw eyes, bodies, hair, etc) to story formulas which they use when writing and structuring their comic serials.

Each genre (and subgenre) can have its own formula that gets used again and again (because if it ain’t broken don’t fix it!) and Shonen comics are no exception. For those who aren’t familiar with Shonen comics, they’re targeted primarily at boys from 8-18, and dominate the sales of comics and anime in Japan. Most of the names you’ll see in any top-10 anime list (for sales or readership) are Shonen titles like Naruto, One Piece, Bleach, Dragonball, etc. Shonen Jump, the largest of these comic anthology magazines, sells between three and four million copies a week, and is ready by all genders and age groups.

So yes, they produce a lot of Shonen comics, and these comics tend to follow a standard structure you’ll see again and again if you keep reading them. This structure likely evolved from Chinese Martial Arts fiction and other serial fiction of the early 20th century, but it definitely came into its own in the late 1980’s, after which it became the dominant form of story structure in mainstream Shonen titles.

Now, before we go into detail about the structure, I want to discuss the three major types of stories which tend to use this structure and what makes each different.

  1. Shonen Fight comics– Comics using this structure are inherently focussed on characters dueling with each other. The focus in these comics is going to be fighting, levelling, and lots of it! Generally speaking, these will follow a talented new fighter who joins the world of battles and then fights an ever escalating series of opponents to become the top fighter of his type. This type of story is extremely popular, and was perfected by Dragonball Z, after which all Shonen Fight comics began to follow this formula. The audience gets vicarious thrills as they watch their young hero fight his way through an endless series of ever more bizarre opponents and learn weird martial arts or fighting techniques that let them become king of the fighters. (Note- these fights can be physical, social, psychological, or take any other form. Death Note is also a Shonen Fight comic, but it looks nothing like Dragonball on the surface.)
  2. Sports/Activity Dramas– These comics use the same structure as Shonen Fight comics, but do something different with it. In these comics, the focus is on taking the audience through the journey of someone becoming a master of a sport or other activity. One key difference here is that Activity Dramas are about teaching the audience something useful in the real world. They often replace the more extreme thrills of Shonen Fight comics with actual useful knowledge of some kind, producing a story which is more grounded, but which offers a combination of entertainment and education at the same time. This type of story can also be quite popular, although it usually ranks slightly below Shonen Fight stories, and examples of it range from sports dramas like Slam Dunk and Robot x Laserbeam, to “Kids collect stuff” dramas like Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh!, or creative activities like Bakuman, and many, many other subjects. You can read more about them here.
  3. Pseudo-Activity Dramas– This is a type of hybrid between the above two. It will use the “teaching” structure of an Activity drama about a character learning something, but the things they’re learning will be fictional and of little real use. What’s happening here is that the writer is using the Activity Drama structure to flesh out the setting and show the character going through the learning process of whatever they’re doing. However, as soon as the character has a good grip on the activity, the comic usually turns into a full Shonen Fight comic and jettisons the Activity drama form in favor of focusing on fighting and dramatic twists. The comic Naruto is a perfect example of this, with the main character being a ninja trainee for the first major arcs of his story and getting extensive detailed ninja training, and then completely jettisoning the training/teaching aspect in favor of superpowered duels once the writer had run out of things to “teach”.

(I should note that many Shonen comics inadvertently follow the Pseudo Activity Drama pattern as the writer starts out with a fun and detailed setting and situation they want to explore, and then when they run out of ideas or start to drop in popularity they resort to turning it into a pure Shonen Fight comic as a last resort. Bleach and Naruto are both poster boys for this!)

In addition, the philosophy behind Shonen Battle manga should also be considered. According to Hirohiko Araki (author of Manga in Theory and Practice: The Craft of Creating Manga) Shonen battle manga are built on three key concepts- Friendship, Effort and Victory. They are about people finding friends, struggling together, and achieving victory through their unity and efforts. This a very Japanese (and Asian) way of looking at the world, as their cultures focus on collective effort and achieving through hard work. This also runs opposite to the North American way of thinking, which is about achievement through individual effort and mastering the world around you by being the best. (Oddly enough, this is the most common Villain perspective in Battle Manga, which highlights the different worldviews between the two.)

So, with that in mind, how does the formula run?

The most common version of this formula is built around a slightly slow but talented main character. This serves 4 purposes: 1) the main character’s slowness makes them sympathetic and more relatable to the average reader. 2) the main character being slow means they must be taught the knowledge they need to know by the other characters and have it explained in simple ways. 3) It gives the character a lot of room to grow. 4) And finally, it lets the main character provide some comic relief and make believable mistakes that liven up the story between dramatic parts.

This Main Character (MC) will have a problem that comes in one of two forms- 1) they’re thrust into a life or death struggle by circumstance and must fight to survive, 2) they’re unhappy in their lives and are looking for a goal or focus to make them feel fulfilled. They may or may not have a major flaw (like laziness, being bad tempered, etc) but will be pure of heart and believe in the power of will to change the world. (They are almost always passionate, active characters, who just need a focus to get them going and use their potential.)

To help them on their journey, the MC will have a buddy who is their closest and most trusted friend. This character exists so that the MC has someone to talk to, and talk about their problems aloud to, vocalizing their thoughts and letting us know what’s going on in their heads. This buddy will often know more than the MC about different topics, but is all theory, and lacks the talent that the MC has.

The MC will normally also have a Main Opponent, someone who is actively trying to accomplish the same goal that they are, or has already accomplished that goal and is trying to maintain their position of power. In Shonen Fight dramas, there may be multiple Main Opponents who come and go with each new story arc, whereas in Activity Dramas the Main Opponent is usually there from the beginning and will only leave when the story ends. (They represent the final challenge the MC must defeat to reach their goal.)

Other typical characters to appear are the Love Interest (who is there to inspire the MC to try harder), the Mentor (there to advise the MC), the Sidekicks (usually the MC picks up a bunch of friends as they journey along, forming a mini-community), and regular Opponents who exist to keep the action flowing and the challenges coming.

The setting can be anyplace or anytime, but will most likely be Japan, and the main characters will be Middle School or High School students, or at least teenagers. This isn’t iron-clad, but there is still that belief that teens relate best to teens.

They should pursue an activity that either naturally has a competitive element to it, or one which can be made competitive through personal competition. For example, Heart Surgery is not a competitive art by nature, but if you have heart surgeons competing for skill and prestige then it can become so. (And has, see Team Medical Dragon.) Humans can make almost anything competitive through pride and jealousy, you just have to think about how to do in an interesting way. This competitive situation is going to be your hook to build drama and keep the audience interested.

There will also be a “gimmick” or hook to the story that makes it different than other stories. Perhaps it’s a novel setting, or a weird method of conflict, or maybe there’s a twist to the main character, but something needs to be different to give the book a bit of novelty. The reader wants something from this story they’re not getting elsewhere, so give it to them.

Once all this is in place, the overall story will run through the following stages:

  1. Getting Motivated– the Main Character (MC) is given a reason to explore/pursue the activity. Sometimes the MC starts motivated, in which case they explain the reason they’re already motivated to another character instead. In any case, the audience is presented with the MC’s reasons for pursuing the activity. The MC is usually living an unfulfilled life and comes to believe that the activity might be a possible solution to fill that void.
  2. It’s Easy! – the MC engages in the activity and shows a natural talent or ability for it, allowing them to score their first victory. This gives them the confidence to move forward, and the feeling that this activity will bring them pleasure and give them something they’ve been missing from their lives.
  3. Maybe it’s Not So Easy? – The MC encounters their first real hurdle to becoming part of this activity- usually through an encounter with the Main Opponent. Their early victory was a product of talent, but they quickly learn that talent alone isn’t enough, as those who have skill can trump their talent easily. Now they’re forced to actually start to learn and explore the activity on a basic level.
  4. A Whole New World – The MC is introduced to the subculture which exists surrounding the activity. Through a guide character (or characters) they discover that there is a whole world they were unaware of hiding within the community that engages in the activity. From this discovery, they begin their first steps into joining that community, and are given basic knowledge about that activity.
  5. A New Path – Now combining Talent and Skill, the MC starts on their real journey towards becoming a master of the activity. They have their first true victory, and get their taste of what it’s like to be part of this new community while facing an Opponent (usually the one from Step 3) who has a flawed approach to the activity in some basic way. This opponent will seem strong at first, but they will realize due to their new skills that this opponent is really weak because they haven’t mastered the fundamentals. Using those same fundamentals combined with talent, the MC will defeat them utterly.
  6. The Long Road – Now that they’ve entered this new world built around the activity, the MC will begin their path towards mastery. During this stage, they will meet a successive series of Opponents and challenges, make new friends, and learn more and more about their activity of choice. This stage is extremely flexible, and can take as long as the story needs it to take, or as long as the steps needed to master the activity require. (For more detail, see Story Arcs below.)
  7. Rising Competition – While the MC is rising, they will periodically re-encounter the Main Opponent in different ways, usually ones which result in indirect competition between them. (Teasing their final conflict and building tension.) This indirect competition is usually through other people who do the activity (defeating the people each other have faced or each other’s allies) and sometimes by competing in different aspects of the activity besides the main one. Also, as a result of this ongoing rivalry, the Main Opponent will also begin to become stronger as well, overcoming personal hurdles and staying ahead of the MC even when it seems like the MC is starting to catch up.
  8. Social Advancement – as the MC defeats more and more challenges, they also rise up within the sub-culture surrounding the activity. They will often find themselves drawn into the politics and deeper aspects of the community and must learn to find their place inside the community. Usually they will learn that the community is bigger than they first imagined, and has far greater depths. They will also make enemies in the community who are threatened by their advancement and/or the changes they represent to the community as it exists now. Those enemies will usually become supporters of the Main Opponent, and help to drive the growing conflict between the MC and MO. Some of them may also try to trap or distract the main character through offers of positions of status or profit if they discontinue their journey, but even if tempted, the MC will always refuse in the end.
  9. Eye of the Tiger – The MC has now mastered/learned all they need to know and become a major figure in their activity. They must now face the Main Opponent in a true match to prove their level of ability and take their place as a master of the activity. Often the MC will have a crisis of confidence or suffer from Imposter Syndrome at this point, thinking they aren’t really ready yet, but they’ll still overcome it and defeat the Main Opponent. Usually the Main Opponent is flawed in some way, often in their thinking or outlook about the activity, and the MC’s victory is due to their purity of outlook, thus showing the audience that their way is the true path in the end.
  10. Towards the Future – The MC is now a master of the activity they fell in love with, and is shown to have a whole new life because of it. They are a happy and fully realized person and member of society who confidently knows their place in the world and is happy within it. The activity and subculture around it have benefited and changed because of the MC’s entry into it, and they can look back with nostalgia and look forward with anticipation to watching the activity grow and flourish under them. Often this is represented by them helping to bring new people into the activity and starting the cycle anew.

Story Arcs

During The Long Road phase, the MC will go through a series of cycles (aka Story Arcs) which are there to represent them learning and facing new challenges as they build toward their final goals. Generally, each Story Arc will be themed around a specific idea or weakness the character has, or something they have yet to learn. So each Story Arc will be about the character facing that weakness and overcoming it.

Generally, each Story Arc along The Long Road will follow the same pattern:

  1. The MC encounters a new opponent who is strong in an area where the MC is still weak or has knowledge the MC lacks. (This can also be a challenge or task which can’t be defeated with the MC’s current skill set.)
  2. The MC is defeated by this new opponent/challenge. (whose ability over the MC is often coded by being referred to by a special name)
  3. The MC figures out why they were defeated (often by consulting others or through experimentation).
  4. The MC seeks and finds a solution to the problem. (Learning new skills/ideas along the way, and possibly a counter-technique.)
  5. While the MC is improving, the MC’s Sidekicks may try to fight the opponent or opponent’s allies. If they face the Opponent, they will lose but their loss will either gain information or help to inspire the MC to act. If they are facing the Opponent’s allies, they will fight hard battles but eventually win around the same time the MC does.
  6. The MC faces the opponent/challenge again, and wins this time because of their new skills/knowledge.
  7. The MC is rewarded for their efforts by praise of others. (If this praise comes from the Opponent, they often become friends or allies after this.)
  8. Return to Step a)

Chapters

Someone one said that the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, and these stories are no different. Each “step” in this case is a Chapter of the story, and they will represent the MC working toward their goals in small ways. According to Hirohiko Araki, each of these steps will usually be structured around a Ki-Sho-Ten-Ketsu pattern. (Which I have written more about here.)

Specifically in Shonen Battle Manga, the pattern tends to work like this:

  • Ki– Introduce the characters and situation.
  • Sho– The situation develops/the characters pick a goal.
  • Ten– A dramatic event (or series of dramatic events) happens. (There can be more than one Ten)
  • Ketsu– The dramatic event(s) resolve to create a new situation.

Or, they look like this (especially during multi-chapter battles or multi-part stories.)

  • Ketsu– The dramatic event(s) of the previous chapter resolve to create a new situation.
  • Ki– This new situation and it’s characters are established.
  • Sho– The situation develops/the characters pick a (new) goal.
  • Ten– A dramatic event (or series of dramatic events) happens. (There can be more than one Ten) The Chapter will end on a Ten beat, leaving the events unresolved until the next chapter (forcing the reader to read the next chapter to find out what happens.)

So, for example:

Opening Story Arc Chapter:

  1. Ki- Ninja Bob and Ninja Sue are facing off with Evil Ninja Red over an ancient Ruby.
  2. Sho- Bob and Sue try to convince Red to join them.
  3. Ten- Red counters by offering to let them join him instead. (Event)
  4. Ten- When they refuse, Red reveals he knows Sue’s dark family secret and says unless she joins him he’ll reveal it. (Oh no! Bigger Event)

Middle Story Arc Chapter:

  • Ketsu– Sue says she doesn’t care, she won’t betray Bob.
  • Ki– Bob and Sue resolve to fight Red, who is clearly not going to give up peacefully.
  • Sho– Bob throws a smoke bomb while Sue attacks!
  • Ten– Red dodges Sue’s attack. (Event)
  • Ten– Red counterattacks Sue, sending her flying. (Bigger Event)
  • Ten– But Bob came in for a surprise attack behind Sue. Red is caught off guard! (Biggest Event)

End Chapter:

  • Ketsu– Red is caught by Bob’s attack and left injured and unable to fight.
  • Ki– Bob rushes to Sue and finds her dying of a sword wound.
  • Sho– Red tells Bob the Ruby can save Sue.
  • Ten– But the Ruby will be destroyed in saving her! (Event)
  • Ten– Not wanting Sue to die, Bob sacrifices the ruby. (Bigger Event.)
  • Ketsu–  Bob and Sue return home to their ninja village to face their master. (And a new series of events!)

And there you have it! There are other formulas and endless variants of the above, but most Shonen battle comics tend to basically follow the above story structure. It is somewhat similar to the Hero’s Journey, but has a few Asian twists on it that make it a bit different. It doesn’t matter whether kids are collecting monsters to fight and trade, or a man is trying to become a master sushi chef- this formula works almost every time.

Rob

 

P.S. If you want the full, revised and much improved version of the above then click on the image below.

How to Write Manga!

How to Write a Good Story – 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:

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

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

  1. Results:
    1. The action fails> return to Plan.
    2. The action succeeds> go to New State.
  2. 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.