Thoughts on Different Story Structures

My recent article where I was trying to unravel the mysteries of writing what I call Procedural Fiction and a conversation I had with my friend Don have left me thinking about the different ways writers use to structure stories. For most people, the Hero’s Journey is the one true method by which stories are written (an innocent enters a new world, is transformed by it, and returns a more mature and seasoned adult) and this is the basic structure which Hollywood follows today almost religiously. In fact, most of the Story Formulas you’ll find if you click that link up top are variants of the Hero’s Journey in one form or another.

However, that isn’t how all stories are structured. In fact, there are a lot of other ways to structure and tell a story that aren’t heroic journeys at all, or where the heroic journey element is merely a background to the real story.

So what different ways can we structure a story?

  • Personal Transformations (hero’s journeys- see Dan Harmon’s Story Wheel)
  • Situation Driven Stories (where the hero is a pawn of the plot/circumstances which surround them and pull them into the story – see the Lester Dent formula)
  • Standard Procedurals (where the hero is following a series of preset steps to accomplish a goal – see the 12 Chapter Murder Mystery formula)
  • Setting Driven Stories (where the story is really about the setting and the character’s place in it)
  • Creativity Driven Stories (where the character is trying to create something, and the building of that thing forms the basis of the story- see my Procedurals article)
  • Education Driven Stories (where the character is trying to learn something, and learning how to do that thing (for the character and audience) is the real focus of the story)
  • Explorational Stories (where the hero is going out into a new world and the exploration of this new setting and its wonders is the focus of the story- see Procedurals article)
  • Collection Based Stories (where the hero is trying to gather something or find something, and the act of collecting that thing and how it affects those who follow this path is the focus of the story- Gotta catch ’em all!)

I’m sure there are more, but I’m missing them, feel free to make suggestions in the comments. 🙂

Most of these will have a Heroic Journey/Personal Transformation story happening within them on the part of the character, but not always. It’s perfectly normal in a situation-driven story for the main character to change little or not at all by the end of the story, which is why it’s not a heroic journey.

The key is how the setting/world around the character is being used. If the setting is only there to further the growth of the character in a certain direction, then the story is a personal transformation story. However, if the setting or situation and how exploring it affects the character is the real focus, then it isn’t a personal transformation story but a story about the nature of that setting or situation.

Example- Bob the Cricketeer.

  • In a Personal Transformation story, the game of Cricket is a vehicle to transform Bob into the person he needs to be to fulfill his deep inner needs.
  • In an Education Driven Story, Bob’s entry into the world of Cricket is a vehicle to explore Cricket, anything Bob goes through is a natural side effect of exploring the game of cricket and is there to show how CRICKET affects its players, not how Bob grows as a person.

Both stories might end at the same point (or not) with Bob being a newly confident master of playing cricket, but they got there through different paths and the stories will be shaped and structured differently. The Education Driven Story could, however, end with Bob having learned nothing but skills and having made a few friends, and be exactly the same person at the story’s end, and it would still work as a story as long as the audience learned all there is to know about Cricket. However, if the point was Bob’s Personal Transformation and he didn’t transform, then that story would have failed.

I think it’s important to be aware of these differences because they give the writer more control over the story and how they can shape the story. If I try writing a Murder Mystery as a Hero’s Journey, for example, the audience will likely get confused and annoyed because they’re expecting a Procedural structure and I’m trying to give them something else. Likewise, it shows that not every story needs to be a hero’s journey, although many stories do make a nod toward that structure in one form or another. (Or at least go through the motions of a Heroic Journey without actually having any real change.)

What do people think? Am I on the right track here? Am I missing something? Feedback is welcome because I think there is more to it, but I’m still puzzling it out.


How Powerful Are Algorithms? | Idea Channel

Information Determinism. Scary stuff! Sadly, it sounds pretty reasonable. Think about it this way- we become like characters in a console RPG like Fable where every choice we make is locking us into a path because the Algorithms that are looking for key data indicators are channeling us this way and that.

Every time we make a choice, or a search, we’re slowly building a giant pile of data that will be used in certain ways to determine what we’ll be shown and where we’ll be sent online. Facebook is using these systems to even determine who our friends are, since our News Feed is being modified to just show us the people it thinks we most want to interact with based on our interactions with people. This will only get worse and worse with time, as the internet we see will become more and more customized to us and our tastes in an effort to keep us using it as much as possible. (To sell us stuff and make money from us.)

Not sure how to counter this, except maybe not using Facebook or other social networks, using Duck Duck Go for searching, and maybe proxies. But, if you want to use the Net at all for shopping, you have to log in somewhere, Ebay, Amazon, it doesn’t matter. And you will leave a trail, and they will use that data to try to sell you stuff, here, or in the future, it will happen unless you’re an ultra secretive and ultra-passive user.

A better route might be to give them too much confusing and conflicting data so they don’t know what boxes to stick you in. Or, since you know they’re watching, give them data which manipulates them to give you what you want. After all, if you show interest in a book with your Amazon account logged in, and then wait a week or two, you’ll get an email offering you the book at a greater discount. With a little knowledge and patience, you can use the system more than its using you.


The Population vs. Productivity Paradox

This is one of the most fascinating discussions I’ve listened to in a while, and also one of the most sobering. Take the time to listen to this episode of the Cracked podcast, it’s 100% worth it, although a little unsettling in its conclusions. You don’t expect to get something this deep and thoughtful from a “comedy” podcast, but here it is…

Listened to it? (Really, go listen to it, it’s worth the time.)

Okay, now my own thoughts.

I think Jason’s pretty much 100% right, and while I wouldn’t quite call it a “hive mind”, I do think that societies function as organisms on a greater level than the individual which have their own goals and responses. The idea that societies produce the kinds of people they “need” makes sense if you look at it from this perspective and the children of each generation are shaped to suit the needs of that society by social forces.

Of course, his conclusions are pretty uncomfortable. When I first heard what he said, all I could think of was Mega-City One from the old Judge Dredd comics. Despite how the city is often portrayed post-1980’s in the comics, the original idea behind the city was that it was a city where everyone’s basic needs were taken care of by the state, and so the whole population existed in this everlasting condition of slight boredom. The city was essentially a warehouse of people who existed to exist, and this produced bizarre social trends and cultural movements which the comic played for darkly humourous social commentary.

However, looking at it with a more logical eye, I think the society he proposes might not be the worst option. Heck, as he says we pretty much do this already, we just call it something else. Those with ambition work, while those without ambition would just spend their time doing whatever it was they enjoyed and keeping out of trouble. Here in Canada we almost do this already with our extensive Welfare system, which many Conservatives harp on all the time and say we need to be rid of to “force them to work”. But the truth is we already have an “official”  unemployment rate hovering around 7%, and the true rate is probably much much higher (the government manipulates the numbers so they don’t look bad), so if we were to force all those “welfare bums” out onto the street what work would there be for them? Do you want hundreds of thousands (or possibly millions) of unemployed, starving and desperate people dumped out into our society? How’s that going to benefit social stability?

Meanwhile, as he says, all those “welfare bums” put 100% of what the government gives them back into society and keep our economy going, so why should we begrudge giving them what they need to survive? If anything, it’s the rich people who hoard their money that actually take money from the system and work against the economy by not putting most of what they make back into circulation.

What’s the alternative anyways? We either give people what they need to live, and let them choose what to do with their lives, or we have a large excess population that is poor, increasingly desperate, and progressively on the verge of social unrest until revolution finally does happen. And when it does, everyone will lose- rich and poor.

Then again, it would solve some of the overpopulation problem. As Jason says, society has a way of correcting these things on its own.




25 Ways To Plot, Plan and Prep Your Story

25 Ways To Plot, Plan and Prep Your Story.

I tend to do it Chapter by Chapter and Scene by Scene, but I have tried a couple of these. As a scriptwriter who has recently been turning a couple of scripts into short stories I can raise some caution about the Script and Dialogue pass methods. One problem with these methods (for me, anyways) is that the dialogue tends to overwhelm the prose, so you can end up with weak prose stringing together strong dialogue if you’re not careful. Then again, if you’re a dialogue-based writer anyways who tends to be minimalist in your prose, those methods might just the thing to get the whole story on paper ASAP.

I thought it was neat to see J.K. Rowling’s spreadsheet approach, and the Index Card approach intrigues me a bit. It’s interesting to see how the commentors point out that if you have a board with all these notes about your book in front of physically at your workstation it forces you to keep focus on that project even when you’re not thinking about it directly. The Collage idea is also interesting, and I have started to do some of that with a current project by tossing pictures I find inspiring into a folder as I do research for it.

A good article, and recommended reading for any writer! You just might learn a way to improve your writing or planning.


Hollywood Accounting

So, apparently Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix made $929 Million dollars, and still managed to lose money. Poor Harry! I guess the recession hits wizards too! Luckily for Harry he’s not alone- apparently up to 80% of Hollywood productions lose money, including many blockbusters and TV shows.

How is this possible, you ask? Well, it’s quite simple really, if Hollywood actually made money, they’d have to pay people who work on their products, and most importantly they’d have to pay their fair share of taxes to the American people. Luckily for them, they’ve developed a highly advanced financial system for defrauding as many people as possible of the profits any such production makes.

I have to say, as stunned as I am that the US government lets Wall Street get away with what it does, I’m even more shocked that they’ve let Hollywood and the entertainment industry get away with this crap for decades. People who work in Hollywood shouldn’t have to sue just to get paid their fair share of wages, and I hope that some recent cases might change things for the better.

I doubt it, though! Where there’s money to be made, there’s greed and corruption to make sure that the system works in the ways that best benefit the rich and greedy.

On the other hand, here’s one less reason for downloaders to feel guilty about “pirating” Hollywood’s products. If Hollywood doesn’t want to  pay the creative people for them, why should the rest of us? Consider it the people of America following Hollywood’s example.

You reap what you sow.

(With special thanks to Jack Ward and Adam Baxter for the links.)

A bas les aristos!

I recently read The Scarlet Pimpernel (text, audio, movie) by Baroness Orczy, and ran into a bit of an interesting philosophical quandry while I was reading it. You see, the Scarlet Pimpernel is an English nobleman who through disguise and deception rescues French nobility from the Guillotine during the French Revolution of 1792 and spirits them away to England and safety. I’ll write more about this great series of books later, but the issue that I ran into while reading the first of the Scarlet Pimpernel novels was that, simply put- I felt what he was doing was wrong.

Now some of that comes from reading Scaramouche (also an excellent novel- text, audio) right before the Scarlet Pimpernel, because Scaramouche does an excellent job of presenting the case of the crimes of the nobility in France, and exactly why they needed to be exterminated. In addition to those at home, those nobles that escaped justice were rallying support among the other nobles of Europe to attack France and destroy it’s new burgeoning republican government and once again usurp the will of the people. So how exactly was the Scarlet Pimpernel a good guy again? (He is, if you’re a noble, if you’re a commoner…not so much…And you’ll note the Author herself was actually a noble! Talk about propaganda!)

It took a bit to mentally reconcile that for me, but eventually I decided he was helping the innocent nobles (since not all were cruel overlords) to escape an overreaching new government that bordered on fanaticism, and so I decided I could accept it. However, I also came to realize that part of the reason I was reacting to badly toward the Scarlet Pimpernel’s mission was that I actually understood the feelings of the people of pre-revolutionary France (well, as much as a modern person can) because in a way I was living in a similar time.

The revolution came (in large part) because of a severe divide between the filthy rich and the poor, where the masses were literally playthings of the rich, and the government systems were tools of that inaccessible landed nobility. Being Canadian, I’ve spent most of my life happy with our system, and actually overall continue to be happy (but a little worried) about it to this day, but when I look at the situation in the USA and the world, I start to feel what those ancient French must have felt. Take a look at the USA, or should I call is CSA (Corporate States of America) where the major corporations managed to turn a financial crisis into a windfall! Where the corporations now have the Rights of a person and the ability to influence politics in a huge way, but don’t share any of the Responsibilities for any of their actions. (A corporation is a person, unless they do something wrong, in which case they’re not. Could the former French nobility have asked for better? Non!)  Where the police are tools of the rich, and a relatively minor offense of theft turns into a major case because it affected one of the corporate nobility like Apple.

And do I expect it to get better? No, worse, much much worse. The financial stability we seem to be enjoying again is an illusion, and another crisis is just around the corner. What’s sadder- that millions of people will become destitute, or that we can expect the culprits to walk away, and even profit from it?

A bas les aristos! Indeed.

To Free or Not to Free 2- The Revenge

Last night I was chatting with a friend and discussing the audiobooks conundrum mentioned earlier this week- if you give the audiobook away for free, will they pay for the text versions or not?

My friend, commented that from his perspective in fact the reverse approach may have netted more fish- give the text away for free, and then charge for the audiobook version. His logic was that audiobooks are less effort to read, and therefore more and more people are being drawn to them out of the sheer base human quality of laziness. He felt that if people like the text, or even just the beginning of the text, they might in fact pay to have the audio version just to make their lives easier as they consume it.

He also pointed out that if something generates fans, then those fans will want to consume more of that something, and in different ways. People who read books don’t avoid the movie version, they tend to flock to the movie version- hoping for an enhanced experience of what they loved about the book.  How much would people pay for a version of the book read by the author themselves?

Now, this approach won’t solve all the problems- for one, how do you get people to read your work in the first place? Part of the reason for podcasting novels to begin with was to have a fresh medium that wasn’t cluttered with a zillion other people fighting for notice. (And even now, with lots of people doing it, it’s still a drop in the bucket compared with the number of people writing away on or their own personal blogs.) The ability to have your work stand out like that, and be given a chance by a lot of people who might not normally touch it is a pretty big advantage in making a name for yourself.

Another issue that would come up is the question of finding an actual publisher- as in, someone to market your books and pay the initial costs of getting them out there in bookstores. If the text is available online for free- why would they want to touch it? (Answer- they probably wouldn’t, you’d need to write a new book for them once you got their attention.) Of course, things are also changing in the e-book realm, with sites like Smashwords helping to enable people to get their e-books published across the formats and platforms. Also, thanks to and similar sites, if you want to do it yourself, that’s feasible too. (Of course, you could also use to sell the audiobook version for pay as well…)

So, unfortunately, the story is far from simple, and the issue is far from closed on the best way to market your creative writing talents online. Do you do the publisher route, and hope you don’t get lost in the slushpile? (Although this site seems to have semi-solved that problem through crowdsourcing.) Or do you take what is almost the modern independent musician route, where you give away your base product for free, and try to make your money through associated merchandise? Is there a happy medium in between?

My friend thinks it’s all about human nature, and finding the best way to navigate the base human needs and desires to get what you want. It would be interesting to know if anyone is doing it his way, and if they’ve had any success doing it as a result.

Facial Reconstriction

What do Avatars, Actors and Porn Stars all have in common?

All of them are looking for the perfect facial expression.

The other week when listening to Slate’s Political Gabfest I heard reference to an article in New York Magazine about how Botox is changing the film/TV industry. Looking it up, it was a fascinating read. Simply put- when you get Botox or plastic surgery to look smoother/younger, you can lose the ability to perform certain facial expressions. Botox is the main killer, of course, since it’s literally paralyzing your skin and muscles to get that smooth, younger appearance. As a result, in the age of HD TV,  actors are literally having to choose between looking good, and being able to express emotion on camera.

And being able to express emotion is important- just look at the Computer Graphics (CGI)  industry. The above New York Magazine article cites a discussion with the Casting Director from Avatar where she was talking with the CGI people about the actors they would choose for the movie, and the key thing the CGI people said was “no Botox, they can’t express emotion.” Why should that be important? Well, in the case of Avatar the CGI people needed to be able to motion capture the faces of the actors to translate that into the movements of the CGI characters, and they needed to be expressive for the system to pick up the emotions properly. But, it goes beyond Avatar, which only uses CGI for aliens and not people, because getting the right facial expressions on CGI human characters like The Incredibles or Beowulf is literally the holy grail.

In the CGI industry, they’re plagued by a problem known as the Uncanny Valley effect, wherein the closer a computer generated character gets to looking like a human without being human, the more it freaks audiences out. When you produce a human-like being that’s 98% human, but still doesn’t quite move right, or have the right subtle facial expressions it doesn’t register as human, but registers (as my one friend put it) like “an undead CGI zombie”. So to them, getting the perfect facial expressions is literally life or death, because if they can’t create a perfect simulation of a human being then they’ll never be able to replace real actors as anything but stunt doubles. (A dream of a Hollywood executives from long ago.) They’ll be stuck using cartoony versions of people like Shrek and the characters from UP!, and aliens from across the galaxy like Jar Jar Binks.

The great irony here, of course, is that the real actors are making themselves more expressionless and wooden through technology, and the technology is striving to make itself LESS expressionless and wooden in its CGI actors! One has to wonder if they’re not going to end up meeting in the middle at some point!

And what does this have to do with Porn Stars? Well, the other day I was having a conversation with one of my friends about the porn industry and its recent shifts in the type of actresses who seem to be rising to the top. When did the queens of the industry stop looking like this:

Jenna Jameson

Jenna Jameson

and start looking like this…

Sasha Grey

That’s a pretty radical change. So what gives?

Well, we both have our theories, but his is the more interesting. He said that simply put, Sasha Grey and the current crop of slender brunettes rising to the top of their industry are more expressive and better actresses than their bustier blonde counterparts. Not being a particularly avid watcher of porn (I find most of it boring, actually) I haven’t seen them in action, but I’m told they’re simply much better at expressing and conveying emotion, and that’s what makes them so attractive to their audience.

Funny that. That the porn industry is now building itself on expressiveness, while mainstream Hollywood is doing the opposite! I’d laugh, but the Botox has kicked in, and all I can do is crack a vague smile, but that’s enough, right?

They should just ask some kids to do it.

The city of Detroit is starting to follow other cities like Flint and has plans to tear down the massive swaths of empty run-down homes that cover much of it’s city and replace them with parkland and fields. They’re going to spend millions tearing down the homes and replanting trees- to which I say “what took you so long?”

I lived in Windsor (aka “South Detroit”) for about four and a half years, and during that time made many trips to Detroit during the 90’s. It was a mess then, and is apparently even a bigger mess now that it’s lost more than half its former population. Something had to be done, and I agree with this choice both because the city simply needed to shrink, and it’s great to see desolated urban blight becoming living fields again. Sure, they’re going to have a big problem with hidden pockets of toxic waste and lord knows what else they’ll uncover during the restoration, but in the end it’s a worthwhile project that will see humanity treating the earth as it should.

I grew up next to a woodland park, and spent most of my childhood there, and I’m hoping that future generation of Detroiters will get to have the same experience.