Smothered in an Avalanche of Ideas

One of the writers I coach recently wrote to me about getting drowned in a sea of ideas for his story, unable to organize his material, make choices, or more forward.

Here is the note I wrote him in response that might have some value for y’all:

I noticed in our previous work together that you often came up with multiple potential plot lines for your story, all equally good, but mutually exclusive. In other words, you have a lot of creativity and keep coming up with a fountain of ideas but they are incompatible with each other if they were placed in a single story, and you have trouble choosing the ones that work together and rejecting the others.

You are not alone in this. Another creative writer I have as a client has the same problem as you. He created a whole universe – a wondrous fantasy world with the potential to be another Harry Potter success but this time in a fantasy land focusing on a young girl – so inventive, so imaginative. But, every time he came up with another great idea, it would shatter the storyline he was working on and break it into pieces like shattered glass. He couldn’t put the pieces back together again and so he came up with a whole new storyline in that world in which the fragmented pieces could be sprinkled.

The sad thing was, each of his storylines was wonderful, but he rejected each because of new ideas he couldn’t fit into them.  I believe that is the same problem you have. Basically, you are so durn creative that you pour out wonderful new ideas all the time. But because they are inspirations, they don’t necessarily fit into what you’ve already written.

Now for most writers who aren’t as inventive as you and my other client, selecting a single plot and a single story is the way to go, simply because they don’t have bushel baskets of other ideas about their story’s world. But for you and my other client, the answer is something else. And it is actually very simple. And, in fact, I’ve already given the secret to both of you, but neither of you has used it, and for the life of me I haven’t figured out why yet.

I’m thinking that your answer is not to reject any of the wonderful ideas but to create a series of books, each of which opens a whole new aspect of what we learned in the previous book. In fact, each new book may completely change what we, the reader, thought was going on in the last book we read, because now a whole new perspective has been created that throws everything into a different context and creates a different meaning.

You just pick the story you want to tell first – make that choice – then pull together all the creative ideas that work around that storyline and put all the other ideas into a sack to be used in later books in the series. That way, no idea is ever rejected, it is just earmarked for down-the-line.

So, with my other creative client, we worked out a master story arc of five books, each of which revealed a different aspect of his story’s world until all his creative ideas were included. And that’s also what you and I did – working out multiple stories that would eventually be able to use all your different storylines and situations.

But, to my surprise, neither of you actually got past that point. I don’t know if the desire to “get it all in one book” is too strong to consider a series or if, perhaps, the idea of the potential tedium of a whole series which requires sticking with a particular story world for a long time is a motivation killer.

In the case of my other client, as soon as he saw he had so many ideas it would take several books to express them all, he dumped his whole story world of fantasy and started a whole new story set in the New York world of high-competition design.

This is the curse of the overly creative mind. It has nothing to do with talent or manner of expression or intelligence. It is just that in some folks the Muse is ramped up so high that the new ideas drown their ability to complete – they are constantly drawn to the next truly wonderful idea and cannot help but lose interest in the idea they ostensibly are supposed to be working on. Once it becomes work, the new ideas are far more interesting because, beneath it all, there is more to being a writer than being creative. It also requires an innate ability of self-discipline – to nail oneself to a chair and write, day in and day out and even when it is deadly boring, unpleasant, unsatisfying, and mind-numbing. That’s how books get written, whereas overly creative minds with equal ability in word play will get nowhere because there is too much to lure them from the drudgery.

That’s the best advice I can muster about why this happens and what to do about it.

One other answer I suggested to my other client was to write his work as a series of short stories. Don’t go for a book-length plot, even if you are aware of every step in that plot. Just write a series of short episodes, each informed by the overall plot line, but each as a stand-alone that doesn’t require the others to be read and enjoyed. In this manner you can muster enough self-discipline to complete something in short form before being dragged away, and eventually can bundle all those short tales in your story world into a single book or series of books.

Other than that, however, unless you can bring yourself to pick one storyline and put in the focus to stick with it until it is done, putting all new ideas into a sack for later, I imagine you’ll continue to be frustrated.

So you really have a choice to keep on going as you are or to create a series of books for all your ideas and new ideas but stick with the first one to get it done, or to go to the short story method and then bundle them into books when you reach a “critical mass.”

Someone once said, “I hate writing; I love to have written.” The choice is really up to you.

Melanie Anne Phillips
Creator, StoryWeaver
Co-creator, Dramatica

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Finding Your Story’s Core

Every story has a core – that concept at the center that pulls all of the story elements into a cohesive whole, establishes meaning and message, and provides the story with an overall identity.

There are four fundamental kinds of cores, though each has endless variations.

1. Situation stories that are all about a fixed situation people must grapple with, such as being stuck in an overturned ocean liner, locked in a high-rise building with terrorists, being handcuffed to a murder, being the only member of a group with a particular gender or race, having a physical deformity.

2. Mind stories that are all about fixed mind sets such as exploring or overcoming prejudice, belief in something that defies all evidence to the contrary, an unreasonable fear, a determination to accomplish something even if the reason for doing it has vanished.

3. Activity stories that are all about external efforts such as a trek through the jungle to obtain a lost treasure, the attempt to build the first self-aware artificial intelligence, a race across a continent in the 1800s, the effort to find a cure for a virulent new disease.

4. Psychology stores that are all about the thinking process, such as trying to come to terms with personal loss, grappling with issues of faith, overcoming addiction, growing to become a true leader, or manipulating someone.

Which of these four kinds of cores best describes what you want your story to be about and how you want it to feel?

By picking a core, you will have a central defining vision for your story that will keep it on track during development, and your completed story will come across with a powerful unified impact on your readers or audience.

This “core” concept is at the heart of our Dramatica story structuring software.

Melanie Anne Phillips
Creator, StoryWeaver
Co-creator, Dramatica

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Writing Tip of the Day

Lose your Muse?

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Writing Tip of the Day

Trouble finding your author’s voice?

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Writing Tip of the Day

Stalled on your first draft?

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In Search of Your Writer’s Identity

Sweet potatoes are the best.  And they are best described in Ralph Ellison’s story of a black man coming to terms with his identity entitled “Invisible Man,” in which he has always avoided eating his favorite childhood food, hot buttered yams sold by street vendors, so he would not be stereotyped, as he now works in an office in a suit.  At the end of the book he finally accepts his true love of the food, stops by a vendor, puts down his briefcase and eats the wonderful sweet salty treat with abandon, proclaiming in his mind, “I yam what I yam.”

Personally, in 7th grade art class, we were given an assignment to bring in pictures to illustrate how to show distance.  One techniques was loss of detail.  I brought in a picture from Mad Magazine where a little boy had just cut off the tail of a cat with a pair of scissors and labelled it “Loss of De Tail.”  He looked at it for a moment and said, “You want to add this to the other examples in your portfolio?”  Man had no sense of humor.  He lost it by living a life as someone he wasn’t.

In each of the two narratives above, one fictional and one a true story, two different people for completely different reasons had stepped away from who they really were to fashion lives that didn’t reflect them at all.  They felt justified in doing this when it started because they never imagined the path would lead them to where they ended up.

It starts with a single compromise to oneself – doing a job you hate to achieve something you want or putting your own art on hold to pay the bills.  But to maintain that compromise, you need to make another, and another in support of it until you’ve built up a whole network of interconnected dependencies that form the bars of a framework behind which you are self-imprisoned.

You’ve put so much effort into building this thing called “your life” that you can’t bear to let it go – like a cancerous tumor you’ve become really attached to, to the point you won’t let anyone remove it from you for fear of the consequences.

Captain Kirk said, “I need my pain,” when he was offered the chance to become “magically” angst-free in one of the movies.  Our angst is the scar we wear, the badge of honor for all the suffering we endured on the way to the life we have fashioned for ourselves that we never really wanted.  It defines our struggle, so it defines us, or at least who we have become.

But is that who we really “are” much less who we would want to be?  Of course not.  But are we willing to change?  Hell, no!  We’d not only be risking everything and everyone we have, but would then have to face that fact that some of those aren’t the things and people we really desire.  And then there’s the kids, and all those who depend upon us, and our responsibility to future generations….

Shakespeare said,

Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveler returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?

But in this case, it is not the after-life we fear, but life itself.  Can we really face having to acknowledge we’ve spent years of our lives weaving a fabric with a horrible pattern that doesn’t reflect us at all?  And wouldn’t THAT be dandy, to not only have to face such knowledge, but then to crash it all down in order to be ourselves so all we end up with is lost time and nothing at all to show for it?  Gambler’s syndrome – if I spend a little bit more I’ll eventually score big enough to cover all of my loses and still come home a winner.

No, it’s not an easy place to go.  But as artists, we head right for that place like lemmings, subjugating our Muse “until later” or because we need to be “responsible.”  Seriously?  What kinds of lame excuses are these?

Don’t lie to yourself that it will happen someday, because it never will – not on its own.  It will only happen someday if you make it happen.  And there’s no time like the present.  Yeah, sure, okay,  you’re not going to abandon your family and head off to another continent to rediscover your Muse (though some have done just that).  But you probably won’t.  I never have, but then I’m no example of much of anything, ‘cept to myself, of course.

No, you’ll probably want to write the great American (or some other nationality) Novel or Screenplay, and you’ll “grunt and sweat under a weary life.” to try to make that happen while still trying to maintain everything else.  After all, J. K. Rowling did just that, didn’t she?

But honestly, how many J. K. Rowlings are in the world?  One, of course,  So give up the dream of writing what you want and expecting it also to make mega bucks.  Could happen, but you’ll probably have better odds with the Lotto.  Besides, as soon as cold, hard cash enters the picture, your Muse seizes up in a mental charlie horse, all twisted up and contorted into a Gordian knot of creative deadlock.  Oh, yeah. That’s fun.

Listen my friends (I can call you my friends, can’t I?) if you want to be happy in writing, just write whatever you freaking want.  And write it how you want.  And tell it the way you want it told.  And never sell out your Muse for security – oh, no…

Sure, take words-for-pay job on the side but realize it has nothing to do with your creative self.  Be truthful, it’s just for the money.  Differentiate between your worker-bee self and your inventive spirit self, and don’t ever, not now, never, under any circumstances lock the two together or they will both go down into the deep and you along with them, waving to you like Ahab on the whale of reality as your inspiration sinks below the waves leaving no one to tell the tale because the writer in you just drowned in self-pity and was never heard from again (though some mindless husk continues to crank out text under the same name).

You yam what you yam.  Eat it.

Melanie Anne Phillips
Creator, StoryWeaver
Co-creator, Dramatica

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Writing Tip of the Day

Trouble fitting ideas together?

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Forget Your Protagonist – Who’s Your Main Character?

For just about any story you read, you get a sense of who it revolves around – who is it really about? Who is the character whose shoes we stand in, through whose eyes and heart do we see and feel the story at the most passionate personal level?

In Gone with the Wind, for example, the two most prominent characters are Rhett and Scarlet. We like Rhett, but it is clearly Scarlet’s story – the whole thing revolves around her, what she thinks, what he feels, the plans she makes, her attitudes, and so on. Rhett, as charismatic as he is, does a lot of things, but he even disappears for quite a while at one point in the picture, but that’s okay because Scarlet is the core of the story. So, she’s the Main Character.

In both the book and movie of To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus (the Gregory Peck part) is the protagonist. The Story Goal is to try and save the black man wrongly accused of raping a white girl in the 1930s south. By definition, the Protagonist is the one pushing forward the effort to achieve the goal. So, that is clearly Atticus. And his opponent, the Antagonist, is the father of the offended girl who wants the man lynched. That’s the plot and Protagonist and Antagonist fight for it. But, neither of them is the Main Character, and we can tell this because we don’t stand in either of their shoes – we don’t see the story though either of their sets of eyes. Rather the Main Character is Atticus’ young daughter Scout. She is also the narrator of both the book and movie, but that is not what makes her the Main Character. Rather, it is that we see the story through her eyes – a child’s view of prejudice.

And there is one more character – the one I want you to focus on creating next for your story – the Influence Character! In TKAM, it is Boo Radley – the Boogeyman who lives next door. While the logistic argument of the story is between Atticus and Bob Ewell over the trial and the fate of the defendant, the passionate or philosophic argument is all about Scout’s prejudice against Boo without ever having seen him. And in fact, he turns out to be the one who has been protecting her from Bob Ewell all along. In other words, any time we make judgements about someone without knowing them, that’s what prejudice is all about. That’s the message of the story. And that’s why Atticus is NOT the Main Character. If he was, we’d stand in his shoes, be all righteous defending a black man, and nothing would be learned. But by standing in Scout’s innocent shoes and still finding ourselves to be prejudiced (because we buy into her fear of Boo) the message is made.

From these examples, you can see that while a protagonist is essential as the driver of the quest for your goal, the passion and message of your story revolves around your main character, who may or may not be the same player as your protagonist.

Use this perspective to ensure both your plot and your message are clearly and powerfully represented.

And use our Dramatica software to develop both your protagonist and main character, whether they are the same player or not.

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The Author’s Journey

We’ve all heard of the hero’s journey that focuses on what stories need to be complete.  But consider that it is equally important to explore what authors need to complete stories.

Many story development methods look first to construct plot, characters, and thematic message.  Then they direct an author to fashion a story that follows the hero’s journey or a series of genre-specific scenes or beats.

In contrast, let’s look toward the author’s journey – the stages through which all writers pass on their way from concept to completion of their novel or screenplay.

There are  four primary stages in the author’s journey:

1. Inspiration

2. Development

3. Exposition

4. Storytelling.

Here’s a brief description of each:

Stage One: Inspiration

The Inspiration Stage begins the moment we have an idea for a story.  This might be an overall concept (computer geeks are transported to the old west), a plot twist (a detective discovers he is investigating his own murder), a character situation (Ponce de Leon still lives today), a thematic topic (fracking), a character study (an aging rock star who is losing his licks) a line of dialog (“Just cuz somthin’s free don’t mean you didn’t buy it.”), a title (Too Old To Die Young) or any other creative notion that makes you think, that’s a good idea for a story!

What gets the hair on your writerly tail to stand up isn’t important.  Whatever it is, you are in the Inspiration Stage and it lasts as long as the ideas flow like spring runoff.  You might add characters, specific events in your plot or even write a chapter or two.  A very lucky writer never gets out of this stage and just keeps on going until the novel is completely written and sent out for publication.

Alas, for most of us, the Muse vanishes somewhere along the line, and we find ourselves staring at the all-too-familiar blank page wondering where to go from here.  Where we go is to Stage Two: Development.

Stage Two:  Development

In the Development Stage we stand back and take a long critical look at our story.  There are likely sections that are ready to write, or perhaps you’ve already written some.  Then there are the holes, both small and gaping, where there’s a disconnect from one moment you’ve worked out to the next one, bridging over what you can intuitively feel are several skipped beats along the way.  There are also breaks in logic when what happens at the beginning makes no sense in connection to what happens at the end (like the Golden Spike if the tracks were a mile apart).  There are characters that don’t ring true, unresolved conflicts, and expressed emotions that seem to come out of nowhere.  You may find thematic inconsistency or may even be missing a theme altogether.

And so, the work begins – tackling each and every one of these by itself, even while trying to make them all fit together.  By the end of the development stage, you’ll have added detail and richness to your story and gotten all the parts to work in concert like a well-turned machine, but it probably wasn’t easy or pleasant.

Eventually (thank providence) you’ll have all the leaks plugged and a fresh coat of paint on the thing.  You now know your story inside and out.  But, your readers won’t.  In fact, you realize that while you can see your beginning, ending and all that happens in between in a single glance, all at once, your readers or audience will be introduced to the elements of your story in a winding sequential progression of reveals.  You also realize you have quite unawares stumbled into Stage Three: Exposition.

Stage Three: Exposition

You know your story, but how do you unfold it for others?  Where do you begin?  Do you use flash backs or perhaps flash forwards?  Do you mislead them?  Do you keep a mystery?  Do you spell things out all at once, or do you drop clues along the way?

There are endless techniques for revealing the totality of your story, many can be used simultaneously, and each one adds a different spice to the journey.  Like a parade, every float and band has a position designed to create the greatest impact.  And when you have all that figured out, you are ready to write as you begin the Storytelling Stage.

Stage Four: Storytelling

Storytelling is all about word play and style.   Whether you are writing a novel, a screenplay or a stage play, there are media-specific manners of expression and conventions of communication, but within those there is plenty of room to maneuver artistically.

Before we send it out the door, we writers shift and substitute and polish until (almost regretfully) we let it go, just like a parent bundling up a child for school.  In the end, as Da Vinci’s famous saying goes, “Art is never finished, only abandoned.”

So, Inspiration, Development, Exposition and Storytelling are the four stages of story development that nearly every writer travels through on the way from concept to completion.

In summary

By following the author’s creative journey, the story development process is never at odds with a writer’s Muse.  So story building becomes a smooth and comfortable  endeavor that encourages invention and boosts the motivation to get it done.

Our StoryWeaver story development software was designed to guide you through all four stages of the author’s journey to build your story’s world, step by step.

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Spin a Tale, Weave a Story

The common expression “spinning a yarn” conjures up the image of a craftsperson pulling together a fluffy pile into a single unbroken thread. An appropriate analogy for the process of telling a tale. A tale is a simple, linear progression – a series of events and emotional experiences that leads from point A to point B, makes sense along the way, and leaves no gaps.

A tale is, perhaps, the simplest form of storytelling structure. The keyword here is “structure.” Certainly, structure isn’t necessary to communicate powerful feelings as a montage of experiences.  One can still relate a conglomeration of intermingled scenarios, each with its own meaning and emotional impact. Many well-known works of this ilk are considered classics, especially as novels or experimental films.

Nonetheless, if one wants to make a point, you need to create a line that leads from your premise to your conclusion. A tale, then, is a sequence of dramatic elements leading from the point of departure to the destination on a single path.

A story, on the other hand, is a more complex form of structure. Essentially, a number of different story threads are intertwined around one another, much as a artist might weave a tapestry. Each individual thread is a tale that needs to be spun, making its own internal message complete, unbroken, and possessing its own sequence. But collectively, the messages of all the threads come together in a single, overall pattern in the tapestry of the story, much as the scanning lines on a television come together to create the image of a single frame.

In story structure, then, the sequence of events in each individual thread cannot be random, but must be designed to do double-duty – both making sense as an unbroken progression and also as pieces of a greater purpose.

To be a story thread, a sequence of dramatic elements must have its own beginning, middle, and end. For example, every character’s growth has its own thread. Typically, this is referred to as a character arc, especially when in reference to the main character. But an “arc” has nothing to do with the growth of a character. Rather, each character’s emotional journey is a personal tale that describe his or her feelings at the beginning of the story, at every key juncture, and at the final reckoning.

Some characters may come to change their natures, others may grow in their resolve. But their mood swings, attitudes, and outlook must follow an unbroken path that is consistent with a series of emotions that a real human being might experience. For example, a person will not instantly snap from a deep depression into joyous elation without some intervening impact, be it unexpected news, a personal epiphany, or even the ingestion of great quantities of chocolate. In short, each character’s throughline must be true to itself, and also must take into consideration the effect of outside influences.

How can we use this throughline concept? Well, right off the bat, it helps us break even the most complex story structures down into a collection of much simpler elements. With the throughline concept, we can far more easily create a story structure, and can also ensure that every element is complete and that our story has no gaps or inconsistencies.

Traditionally,  writers would haul out the old index cards (or their equivalent) and try to create a single sequential progression for their stories from Act I, Scene I to the climax and final denouement.

An unfortunate byproduct of this “single throughline” approach is that it tended to make stories far more simplistic than they actually needed to be since the author would think of the sequential structure as being essentially a simple tale, rather than a layered story.

In addition, by separating the throughlines it is far easier to see if there are any gaps in the chain. Using a single thread approach to a story runs the risk of having a powerful event in one throughline carry enough dramatic weight to pull the story along, masking missing pieces in other throughlines that never get filled. This, in fact, is part of what makes some stories seem disconnected from the real world, trite, or melodramatic.

By using throughlines it is far easier to create complex themes and layered messages. Many authors think of stories as having only one theme (if that). A theme is just a comparison between two human qualities to see which is better in the given situations of the story.

For example, a story might wish to deal with greed. But, greed by itself is just a topic. It doesn’t become a theme until you weigh it against its counterpoint, generosity, and then “prove” which is the better quality of spirit to possess by showing how they each fare over the course of the story. One story’s message might be that generosity is better, but another story might wish to put forth that in a particular circumstance, greed is actually better.

By seeing the exploration of greed as one throughline and the exploration of generosity as another, each can be presented in its own progression. In so doing, the author avoids directly comparing one to the other (as this leads to a ham-handed and preachy message), but instead can balance one against the other so that the evidence builds as to which is better, but you still allow the audience to come to its own conclusion, thereby involving them in the message and making it their own. Certainly, a more powerful approach.

Plot, too, is assisted by multiple throughlines. Subplots are often hard to create and hard to follow. By dealing with each independently and side by side, you can easily see how they interrelate and can spot and holes or inconsistencies.

Subplots usually revolve around different characters. By placing a character’s growth throughline alongside his or her subplot throughline, you can make sure their mental state is always reflective of their inner state, and that they are never called upon to act in a way that is inconsistent with their mood or attitude at the time.

There are many other advantages to the use of throughlines as well. So many, that the Dramatica theory (and software) incorporate throughlines into the whole approach. Years later, when I developed StoryWeaver at my own company, throughlines became an integral part of the step-by-step story development approach it offers.

How do you begin to use throughlines for your stories? The first step is to get yourself some index cards, either 3×5 or 5×7. As you develop your story, rather than simply lining them all up in order, you take each sequential element of your story and create its own independent series of cards showing every step along the way.

Identify each separate kind of throughline with a different color. For example, you could make character-related throughlines blue (or use blue ink, or a blue dot) and make plot related throughlines green. This way, when you assemble them all together into your overall story structure, you can tell at a glance which elements are which, and even get a sense of which points in your story are character heavy or plot or theme heavy.

Then, identify each throughline within a group by its own mark, such as the character’s name, or some catch-phrase that describes a particular sub-plot, such as, “Joe’s attempt to fool Sally (or more simply, the “Sally Caper.”). That way, even when you weave them all together into a single storyline, you can easily find and work with the components of any given throughline. Be sure also to number the cards in each throughline in sequence, so if you accidentally mix them up or decide to present them out of order for storytelling purposes, such as in a flashback or flash forward, you will know the order in which they actually need to occur in the “real time” of the story.

So, bottom line:  you spin a tale or you can weave a story, but if you want to convey a complex message, you need to ensure that every thread is not only a quality one, but that they all work together to create a greater meaning.

This technique is the heart of our StoryWeaver Story Development Software.  Click here for details or to try it risk-free for 90 days.

Melanie Anne Phillips
Creator, StoryWeaver

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