Here’s a short poem I finished up at 4 a.m. this morning, followed by some creative notes that you might find valuable in developing your own stories:
Can I find some peace of mind, to dull the horrid daily grind, or should I taste the bitter rind, whose poison quells all pain?
Will I fight another day, am I the one my Id will slay, and what will be the price to pay, to end this sad refrain.
From time to time I am compelled, to neuter what I cannot geld, that which never can be held, melting in the rain.
Driven by the summer breeze, to dash against the leafless trees, then thrust to ground on brittle knees, and never walk again.
Lifeless dreams through sightless eyes, dance across the heartless skies, and sing a ghastly last reprise, that burns into my brain.
Empty husk of parasites, humbled by a thousand bites, drained of self and filled with mites, resistance is in vain.
Flaccid with my stuffing gone, darkness now defies the dawn, time stands still, then marches on, a pointless trackless train.
Into earth my substance crumbles, while the time train clacks and rumbles, all I was is lost to mumbles, neither sharp nor sane.
Now as if I wasn’t there, self is shadow, breath is air, nothing left to be aware, a terminal moraine.
So, you see, it is about the death of a glacier. But the weird part is, I didn’t know that until after I wrote it.
All through the creative process I thought I was describing a despondent burned-out person, though I, myself, am in quite a positive mood of late.
It felt strange writing this – different than usual. Each stanza came together organically, and though each was about the same issue of loss of self, each was also centered around a completely different kind of imagery.
The stanzas really didn’t seem connected by a central spine or theme, just that sense of loss of self. In fact, taken together, I felt they were just chaotic glimpses into the storyteller’s psyche.
In terms of the creative process, all went smoothly until I arrived at the very last line. After every previous rhyme falling easily into place, I couldn’t (for the life of me) figure out how I wanted it to end.
So, for the first time on this project, I opened the rhyming dictionary and scanned through hundreds of multi-syllable words that rhymed with “pain.”
Nothing jumped out at me until I stumbled across “terminal moraine.” That was it! Perfect ending – terminal having the double meaning of mortality, which seemed to fit with this poor narrators description of his life experiences.
So, I plopped in that last line, re-read it a few times and published it on my blog under the title “A Way Out,” still believing it to be about this person.
Didn’t like the title though. Seemed mamby pamby. I decided to re-read the poem a few more times and after perhaps half a dozen readings, going from the end back to the beginning, I read “terminal moraine” immediately followed by “daily grind.” And that’s when it hit me – those two phrases sound like they are describing a glacier!
“No….” I thought. “It can’t be….” So I read it once more with “death of a glacier” in mind and holy crap! Every stanza – every WORD rang true to that theme, as if it had been intentionally written all along to describe the last days of a glacier’s life.
Now that has never happened to me before, and I’m kind of blown away by it. The poem is good and the imagery works with any title, but “Glacier” is that missing thread that elevates the poem from a collection of images to a single topic, explored.
I’d say at least half of the artistic impact of the poem derives from seeing it as the end of a glacier. And so, I really don’t feel right taking credit for that since that didn’t happen until the poem was already completed. Hence, this “apology” for the quality of the work.
Still, this brings up an interesting aspect of the writing craft. I’ pretty sure my subconscious knew full well what it was writing about from the get-go. It just didn’t fill me in on it until the end.
I’e read many accounts where readers find so much meaning in a poem, a story, or a song that was never intended by the author, who denies that meaning intently.
And yet, as creators, we all know we have over-active imaginations, and a lot of what goes on with that comes from the subconscious. That’s where inspirations come from and it is the source of those moment of epiphany that pop up in Eureka moments.
It is my belief that the truly great writers are those whose subconscious works to instill far more meaning in their stories than that of which the author is ever consciously aware. THAT is the quality that infuses depth and complexity into the piece and draws the readers into a multi-level multi-faceted experience.
This latest effort has driven that home to me yet again – that the best way to construct a story is to let your mind set the destination and your heart chart the course.
Welcome to our new series that explores the elements of story structure and describes how they work together to form a framework for your story.
We begin with a fundamental question:
Does Story Structure Exist?
It might seem a silly question on its face, but dig a little deeper and it is worthy of an answer – especially if you want to justify putting time into studying it!
Some folks feel stories are so organic and fluid that they can’t possibly described by a fixed and restrictive structure.
Other folks note that the same elements and forms keep showing up such as protagonist, goal, and acts, and figure there must be some Great Wheel that drives a story forward.
Over the years theorists like Joseph Campbell championed the concept of the mythic Hero and his relationships with other archetypes who helped or hindered him along the way (based on archetypes of the Collective Unconscious originally outlined by Jung).
Other theorists, such as Chris Vogler in his book, The Writer’s Journey, adapted and extended Campbell into a practical guide for story development.
Many have found these perspectives useful forming and refining stories, but many others have found them limiting and incomplete. Still, the bottom line is that most writers sense there is some underlying mechanism that gives stories their spines, but they also tend to feel that the truth of it is foggy at best and obscure at worst.
And that is where we will leave things (until next time) with this conclusion: Story structure probably exists, but no one has ever gotten a really good look at it nor laid out a complete explanation for it much less a practical guide for employing it.
In our next installment, we’ll take our first step into a new way of looking at story structure that incorporates but also transcends the other theories mentioned here so far.
Step 1 | Introducing a new approach to story development
For most authors, the hardest part of writing is the raw invention needed to come up with an intriguing plot, compelling characters, a meaningful theme, and an involving genre. Once you have that all worked out, the actual writing is the fun part.
In this weekly series we’ll be using a new approach to story development called StoryWeaver. StoryWeaver is so named because it employs a technique for drawing story threads from your original concept much as a weaver might draw threads from wool. Step by step you grow and clarify your story as you twist your threads into yarn, spin that yarn, and eventually weave it into the tapestry of your story.
There are four stages in StoryWeaver’s story creation path, and you can see them as the top-level categories in the navigation menu to the right (or just below this text on smaller screens). They are:
The Inspiration Stage helps you draw new story threads for your plot, characters, theme and genre from your original concept. The Development Stage twists those threads to deepen and expand your ideas into greater detail. The Exposition Stage helps you spin your ideas together into a full bodied yarn. The Storytelling Stage weaves everything that happens in your story as it unfolds over time.
By the end of the path, you’ll have a completed story, fully developed and expertly told.
Step two will be coming next week but you can keep going right now with the interactive online StoryWeaver App. Check out the 14 day free trial at Storymind.com/free-trial.htm
Although you have a clear plot that you have created from the position of author, it is going to look quite different to each of your characters, depending on their particular situation and tempered by where they are coming from and how they see the world in general.
Now your characters aren’t going to be thinking about the plot the way you do. They can’t even see that there is a plot. Rather, they see their situation and have attitudes and feelings about it – some modest and some passionate.
They do their best to understand what’s going on, where things are headed, what their options are, and what they might try to do to bend things more in a favorable direction for themselves and/or those they care about.
Your story will become much more involving if you can convey all your characters’ different perspectives, including information about why they feel that way, what they want, what they don’t don’t, and even how they feel about each other.
This information can be doled out over the course of your story – a little bit each chapter or act. In this way, an air of mystery envelopes each character and your readers or audience are drawn eagerly forward to learn more about these people that they are becoming attached to.
To begin this process, review what you have developed about your characters and your plot. Now stand the shoes of each of them in turn and write a first person description of how they see themselves and their situation, perhaps telling us about their hopes and dreams, but most of all, let them tell you about their place in the story and what it looks like to them, in their own words and through their own voice, mannerisms, and attitudes.
Here’s a couple of examples from a sample story of mine – a comedy about 105 year old man who was just elected sheriff in an old western town besieged by a gang of cutthroats:
James Vestibule – The New Sheriff
You’d think at 105 I’d be entitled to some peace. But NO! I was born in 1765 when there was no US of A and served in the Revolutionary War. Fought in the War Of 1812 too, and met my good friend Francis Scott Key. In fact, it feels like it was one war on the heels of another. First as a soldier, then as an instructor, and finally as an informal adviser in the war between the states. Too much experience for them to let me be, I suppose.
I had always reveled in the patriotism and glory, but this last conflict left me sour – brother against brother – father against son against grandson (oh, my dear beloved Jonathan). And I think it was that – the loss of Jonathan – that tore me and my wife Amoire asunder. My son, Jacob, had sided with the Rebels, and and he was a hard man, even cruel at times. His son Jonathan joined up with the Union. One day Johnathan came home on leave to visit us on our family farm in Kentucky, not knowing Jacob was already there. Jacob just saw the uniform and shot him dead. Once he saw it was his son, he turned the gun on himself and we lost both of them that day.
Amoire and I were cut with such grief we couldn’t even talk, and in short order we divorced. I left her to go out west and try to find some peace in my remaining years. But no sooner do I get here but they thrust a badge at me for the honorary position of sheriff (due to my military experience) and now I have to attend meetings, sit in that rat hole of an office from time to time, and coddle the drunks, cheats, and ne’er-do-wells. Fine life. Honestly, I was still dreaming of that ranch Amoire and I had always wanted, but under the circumstances, I guess that really is just a dream…
NOTES: Okay – this has clearly taken a more dramatic turn than I intended in a comedy. Can I use it? Don’t know yet. Sometimes a good dramatic foundation can enrich a comic character by giving it more depth than simple superficial laughs. You can be sardonic, cerebral, philosophic, and ironic. And in the end, you can make their dreams come true, adding a feel-good experience and a sense of relief to what would just have been a simple comedy if the dramatic depth had not been plumbed.
One thing is sure. This character inspires me.
Let’s try the same thing with a really minor character in my story and see what happens:
Nancy Lacy – Blacksmith
They made fun of me as a child. Mancy Nancy they called me on account of my size. And then I’d bash ’em in the face and they wouldn’t call me that no more. But truth be told, there’s a big difference between how you look and how you feel. You think I dreamed of a life as a blacksmith? Well, you’d be right. I did. I just love bending metal to my will. I love bending anything to my will. But don’t let that fool ya… I only do that to make my life genteel. I have iron daisies over my mantle, just above the 12-gauge.
I pretty much keep to myself, aside from clients – ‘cept for that new sheriff. He’s just so sweet. He sees beyond my looks and can tell that beneath it all, I have a heart of steel.
NOTES – Okay, a potentially comic character here. She needs more development and I can probably write some good material standing in her shoes. But, she doesn’t strike me as having the potential to be a major character at all. Nonetheless, I can see calling on her in the plot from time to time, and even perhaps a touching comic scene when she quenches a blade with her tears.
And that is why this exercise of having each character write about their situation in your story in their own words in first person is so important.
The whole point is to get to know how your characters see themselves, their lives, their role in the story and even how they see each other. Your story will be the richer for it.
Characters have two jobs. One, they must respond as real people so we can identify with them. Two, they must function as part of your plot to they contribute to the message.
Characters who don’t ring true drop your readers (or audience) out of their involvement with your story. Characters who don’t have a plot function seem pointless and can disrupt the flow of your story.
That being said, there is no need to develop the personality of a character who is simply a vehicle of exposition to provide some necessary information to your readers.
Similarly, characters can provide color and passion to a story, even if they have no impact on the course of events.
Think of these two approaches to character as the “play by play” and “color commentary” on a sporting event. One announcer tells you what’s happening and how it fits into the big picture. The other announcer provides interesting information about the backstory and personality of each player, helping us see them as people, and drawing our interest and involvement.
In your story storytelling, review your work from time to time to ensure your critical characters are working to advance the plot. And then take an emotional picture each character in your story verify that they have sufficient personality traits and personal information to attract your readers, hold their attention throughout the story, and lead them to identify with your characters or at the very least, identify them as a “type” they see in everyday life.
More on character types in future Beginning Writer Tips from StoryWeaver.
What a character likes and dislikes takes the curse of its larger than life stature. Whether you are writing a novel, play, screenplay, or teleplay, your characters loom in the hearts and minds of the audience. No one can relate to a loom. To humanize your characters and bring them down to size, give them preferences rather than just points of view.
You work in an office. Everyone does their job. The place runs like clockwork. Who ARE these people?! Until you know if they love football but hate sushi, you don’t really know them all. Who CARES what their functions are; more important to your readers is what do they take in their coffee, or tea, or do they not touch either but guzzle cola and pistachios.
Red. Does it do anything for them? What about wall paper patterns with thousands of little ducks? The things your characters like and don’t like set them apart from the crowd. And letting yourself go a little bit off the wall can bring forth attractions and repulsions that can suggest settings for a whole scene, sequence, or even the whole story itself.
Work yourself into the words. If you have pet likes and dislikes, this is the place to spout off about them. Assign them to your characters and you can get back at all those hated things, and express all those yearnings for the loved ones.
Archetypal characters have a bad name. Many writers think such characters are two-dimensional stick figures that come off more like plot robots than real people. But the truth is that archetypes represent essential human qualities that need to be explored in every story, such as trying to solve the story’s problems through logic as opposed to another character who hopes to succeed by following his or her heart. The story’s message is which approach turns out to be the best one in regard to the particular predicament explored in the story.
So if these archetypal human qualities need to be explored, how can you write a plot in which the characters that represent these attributes come off as flesh-and-blood, rather than automatons?
To find out, let’s build a plot using only archetypal characters. For this exercise I’ll be using the eight archetypal character described in the Dramatica approach story story structure that I co-developed along with my writing partner many years ago. You can, of course, use any archetypal system that is comfortable for you, such as those of Campbell or Jung.
A Sample Story Using Archetypes
To build our sample story, let’s take each archetype one by one and see how each can add the potential for interpersonal conflict and internal conflict as well.
Creating a Protagonist
Everyone is familiar with the Protagonist archetype, so let’s begin there and arbitrarily create a PROTAGONIST called Jane. Jane wants to… what?… rob a bank?…kill the monster?… stop the terrorists?… resolve her differences with her mother? It really doesn’t matter for our sample story; her goal can be whatever interests us as authors. So we’ll pick “stop the terrorists” because it interests us. All right, our Protagonist — Jane — wants to stop the terrorists.
Creating an Antagonist
Our Dramatica approach says we also need an ANTAGONIST. Antagonist by our definition is the person who tries to prevent achievement of the goal. So, who might be diametrically against the completion of the task Jane wants to accomplish? The Religious Leader whose dogma is the source of inspiration that spawns the acts of terror?… The multinational business cartel that stands to make billions if the terrorists succeed in their scheme?… Her former lover who leads the terrorist who are really an elite band of criminals? We like THAT one! Okay, we have our Protagonist (Jane) who wants to stop the terrorists who are led by her former lover (Johann).
Creating a Skeptic
Two simple Characters down, six to go. Dramatica now tells us we need a SKEPTIC. So who might be doubtful of the effort and not believe that success is possible for our stalwart Jane? Perhaps a rival special agent who doesn’t want to be left in the dust by her glowing success?… Maybe her current love interest on the force who feels Jane is in over her head?… Her father, the Senator, who wants his daughter to follow him into politics? Good enough for us. So we have Jane who wants to stop the terrorists, pitted against her former lover Johann who heads the criminal band, and opposed by her father, the Senator.
Creating a Sidekick
To balance the Skeptic, we’re going to need a SIDEKICK is, by definition, has complete unshakable faith in the Protagonist. We could bring back the idea of using her current lover but this time have him knowing how much ridding the world of scum appeals to Jane so he remains steadfastly behind her. Or we might employ her Supervisor and mentor on the force who knows the depth of Jane’s talent, wants to inspire other young idealists to take action against threats to democracy, or prove his theories and vindicate his name in the undercover world… We’ll use the Supervisor. So here’s Jane who wants to stop the terrorists, pitted against her former lover Johann, the head of the band, who wants to stop her, opposed by her father, the Senator, and supported by her Supervisor.
Creating a Contagonist
Let’s bring in a CONTAGONIST. What’s a Contagonist, you ask? It’s an archetypal character we developed uniquely in Dramatica. Essentially, they gum up the works. Sometimes they act as tempation to lure the protagonist off the proper path. And other times they gum up the works by doing or saying something that creates problems for the Protagonist, often quite by accident.
Here are some possible Contagonists for our sample story: the Seasoned Cop who says, “You have to play by the rules” and thwarts Jane’s efforts to forge a better approach?… Or, the Ex-Con with a heart of gold who studies the classics and counsels her to base her approach on proven scenarios rather than her own inspirations?… Or, her friend Sheila, a computer whiz who has a bogus response plan based on averaging every scenario every attempted? Computer whiz it is. So Jane wants to stop the terrorists, is pitted against the head of the band (her former lover Johann) who wants to stop her, opposed by her father, the Senator, supported by her Supervisor, and tempted away from the strength of her own inspired approach by her friend Sheila, the computer whiz.
Creating a Guardian
Keeping in mind the concept that for every archetype there should be another one who represents the opposite human quality, we are going to want to balance the Contagonist (who tempts and gums up the works) with a Guardian archetype (who appeals to conscience and smooths the way).
We might go with a Master of the Oriental martial arts who urges her to “go with the flow” (“Use The Force, Jane!”)?… The Ex-Con again who says, “Get back to basics”?… or perhaps the Seasoned Cop who paves the way through the undercover jungle?…. We like the Seasoned Cop. Note that we could have used him as Contagonist who says “You have to play by the rules,” but elected to use him as Guardian instead, who paves the way for Jane by giving her the benefit of his experience. As you can see it’s totally up to us as authors which characteristics go into which players. Jane wants to stop the terrorists, is pitted against the head of the band (her former lover Johann) who wants to stop her, is opposed by her father, the Senator, supported by her Supervisor, tempted by her friend Sheila the computer whiz, and protected by the Seasoned Cop.
Creating Reason and Emotion Characters
The final two archetypal characters in our Dramatica system represent our intellect and our passion, respectively. Since we really like some of the character we came up with earlier but not to use, let’s bring back the Ex-Con as REASON, stressing the need to use classic scenarios. We’ll balance her with the Master of the Oriental martial arts, who maintains Jane’s need to break with the Western approach by letting loose and following her feelings.
Well, that covers all eight Archetypal Characters: Protagonist, Antagonist, Skeptic, Sidekick, Contagonist, Guardian, Reason and Emotion. So now we end up with Jane who wants to stop the terrorists and is pitted against the head of the band (her former lover Johann) who wants to stop her, is opposed by her Father, the Senator, is supported by her Supervisor, tempted by her friend Sheila the computer whiz, protected by the Seasoned Cop, urged by the Ex-Con to copy the classics, and counseled by the Master of Oriental martial arts to let loose and follow her feelings.
As was pointed out at the beginning, you can use any archetypal characters you like, and simply applying the human quality they represent to their plot function, they will have the potential not only to come off as real people but to lay the groundwork for conflict within themselves and with the other characters as well.
Some time ago I wrote an article explaining how plot wasn’t the order in which events appeared in a story, but the order in which they happened to the characters. Still, how you reveal what happened to the characters can have a huge effect on the reader/audience experience.
As an example, consider the Quentin Tarantino movie, Pulp Fiction, in which several interconnected story lines are presented quite out of order from how they actually came down. A large part of the fun for the audience is to try to put the pieces together in the right sequence so they understand the meaning of the story.
Of course, that’s an extreme example. Much more common is the simple flashback (or flash forward). But even here, some flashbacks are plot, and others are storytelling. First, consider a story in which the story opens in a given year and then the next section begins with the introduction, “Three years earlier…” In this case, the characters aren’t being transported back in time, just the reader or audience. The author is showing us what happened that led up to where things are “now” in the story. That is all storytelling, and can be quite effective.
But now consider a flashback in which a character recalls some incident in the past. The character drifts off into reverie and then we, the readers or audience, watch those events as if they are in the present, observing the memories as the character experiences them. This is plot, not storytelling, because neither character nor readers are transport back in time. Rather, we are just observing just what the character is reminiscing about in the here and now. And so, this trip to the past does affect the character – it changes how they feel and perhaps what they will do next.
This is also true of flash forwards: Do we jump into the future to see where a character will end up, or is the character projecting where they might end up and we are seeing what they are thinking? The first variation is storytelling, the second is plot.
Of course things can get really out of whack in time-travel stories, especially since you can add both plot flashbacks and storytelling flashbacks also. The important thing here is to know when you are actually altering your plot or just changing the order in which the readers or audience are shown parts of the plot. If you are aware, you can play these techniques like a virtuoso, but if you treat them all the same, you’ll just end up with a cacophony.
But, as I said, that was covered in an earlier article I wrote, but I am repeating it here as a necessary foundation to what comes next. And that is, the difference between Static Plot Points and Sequential Plot Points. Very important.
To begin, if you strip away all the storytelling aspects of plot and get down to just the structure (the order in which things happen to the characters), you’ll find there are two kinds of plot points: One, Static Plot Points, such as the story Goal, that remain the same for the whole course of the story, and Two, Sequential Plot Points, such as Acts, Sequences, Scenes, and Beats within a scene, in which the story moves from one to the next to the next until the progression of the plot arrives at the climax, resolves and ends.
And that is what this article is about – giving you a glimpse into those two aspects of plot.
First, let’s look at the static plot points. We’ll cover just four in this article to make the point about static vs. progressive and address others in later articles. Here’s the four we’ll explore:
Goal, Requirements, Consequences, and Forewarnings.
Here’s a brief description of each:
Goal is what the protagonist is trying to achieve and the antagonist is trying to stop. Each probably has recruited their own team of helpers enlisted to aid in their two contradictory quest, but it is ultimately the protagonist and antagonist who have to duke it out to determine if the effort to achieve the goal ends in success or failure.
Now we all know that some goals turn out to be not worth achieving and that some goals are born of a misguided understanding, and also that goals can be partially achieved so, for example, the protagonist doesn’t get everything they want but enough to cover what they really need. No matter how you temper it, the story Goal is the biggest linchpin in your story’s plot.
Requirements are what’s needed to achieve that Goal. Requirements might be a shopping list of things the characters need to obtain or accomplish in any order (like a scavenger hunt) or Requirements could be a series of steps that need to be checked off in order.
Now you’d think that would make Requirements a sequential plot point, but it doesn’t because the Requirements remain the same for the entire story. So, just because you have to fulfill requirement 1 and then 2 and then 3, doesn’t make them sequential. Sequential plot points are like gears that turn to a different setting every act, sequence, or scene. The focus of each act, for example, is different than the last one, while the Requirements remain the same, even if they have to be accomplished in a certain order.
Yeah, this stuff can get pretty complex. That’s why you have me, your friendly neighborhood teach of story structure and storytelling to guide you through these tricky little story structure quagmires.
Consequences, are sort of like an Anti-Goal. Consequences are what will happen if the goal is not accomplished. It’s kind of like the flip-side of the coin. One the one side is the positive desired future and on the other side is the negative undesired alternative if that future isn’t achieved.
Consequences are really important because they double the dramatic tension of the story. The character are just chasing something positive, they are also being chased by something negative. Will they catch the Goal before the Consequences catch them? That’s where plot tension comes from. Right there.
Forewarnings… Just as Requirements are how you can chart the progress toward the Goal, Forewarnings are how you can chart how close the Consequences are to happening. Consequences can be cracks in a dam, follow by a small drip, a few little leaks, and so on. Everyone knows that at some point, the dam is going to bust – unless the characters achieve the Goal first, such as diverting the upstream flow, or opening the jammed overflow gates.
Forewarings can also be emotional too. A man must make his fortune to satisfy a woman’s father before he can get permission to marry her. But, there is another suitor. While he’s off looking for a legendary treasure, the woman has a casual conversation with the rival. As the man remains away, the woman and the rival share a meal, have a picnic, sit close together on the beach, watching the sunset. We all know that if the man doesn’t return with the treasure soon, the woman will go with the suitor who is there, rather than the man who isn’t.
So those are four examples of static plot points. There are many more. You’d be surprised! Some of them are extremely handy in making a plot click like clockwork. Alas, those are beyond the scope of this particular article. But don’t worry, I’ll be covering those in the not too distant future. Was that a flash forward?
All right. Now what about the Sequential Plot Points? A storya unfolds over time – not just in the telling, but the whole point of a story is to follow a journey and learn if the characters involved make the right decisions or not to get what they are after, both materially and emotionally. And we, the readers or audience, gain from that experience so we are better prepared if we ever face that kind of human issue in our own lives.
Now of course nobody thinks about that while following a story, but that’s how it works at the structural level. That’s part of the craft of authorship: to structure a story to affect readers or audience in a certain way intentionally to move them to feel or respond in a desired fashion when all is said and done.
To this end, think of a story as a symphony. You may know that symphonies are made of of movements – large sections of time in which certain themes are explored. And then the symphony shifts into another movement in which a different theme is explored. By the end of the symphony, all the variations of the theme that the composer wanted the audience to experience have been related, leading to a final climax and conclusion. How very like a story.
In stories, the largest of these movements are the acts. You can feel them when watching a movie or reading a book. There comes a point where something major is completed and the characters move on to a different kind of effort or understanding. Or, some major event occurs that sends everything off in a different direction. You get a sense of completion when you reach an act break, and also the sense that the next stage or phase of the story’s journey is about to begin.
Within acts are smaller movements called Sequences. Sequences usually follow an arc that spans several scenes. It may be a character arc or a kind of effort or process that has its own beginning, middle, and end within the story as a whole. For example, we’ve all heard of the “chase sequence” that often occurs in action movies. That’s how they come across, basically.
Scenes are smaller units and are more defined. They are like little dramatic circuits that have a Potential, Resistance, Current, and Outcome (Power). Each scene is a little machine – a miniature story within an act. Each scene starts with some dramatic potential, runs into a resistance, presses forward, and ends with a resolution to that original potential.
One of the most elegant things about scenes is that the way a scene ends set up the dramatic potential that will start another scene later. Elegant, but hard to get your head around. Again, not to worry, I’ll be covering that aspect of plot in another article soon.
Point being, that each scene is a tooth on the cog of an act. And together all these act cogs work together as part of the plot machinery of your story.
And finally, just as I covered four of the most basic static plot points, here is the fourth and final sequential plot point I’ll give you for now: Beats.
Beats are the turning of the gears within each scene. They are the steps within the scene that introduce the potential, bring into play the resistance, pit those against each other, and spit out the outcome.
What those beats are and how to use them is, again, the subject of another article. But the point here is that the sequential progression of a plot isn’t just one event after another; it is more like wheels within wheels.
And so, I believe we have accomplish our goal of the moment, which is that you are now probably quite away that the order of events in a finished story is not at all the plot. The plot is the order in which events happen to the characters.
And plot has two kinds: static, and sequential. The static point points include such things as Goal, Requirements, Consequences, and Forewarnings, and never change their nature over the course of the story. The sequential plot points are like gears that move the machinery of the plot forward, act by act, sequence by sequence, scene by scene, and beat by beat.
And that, my fellow writers, is how a story rolls.
What’s in a name? Choosing names for your characters can be perfunctory or can provide your readers or audience with insight into your characters’ natures, add humor or surprise, or even at the very least break out of ordinary monikers into the realm of the unusual.
So far, we’ve been dealing with characters primarily by their jobs, vocations or roles since we derived them from your plot. Now it’s time to start building some personality into your characters to see if they really have potential for your story, and we’ll begin by giving them names.
Few people (other than performers, artists, and writers) get to choose their own names. But as a writer, you have the power to choose the names of all your characters. And with this power comes the opportunity to say something to your readers or audience about a character’s inclinations, accomplishments, or outlook.
A name could convey military service, religious affiliation, or status. A nick-name might illuminate a major character trait, some event in a character’s past, or the way other characters feel about him or her. Names can add to comic value, hint at danger, or flirt with with mystery.
In this step, add a name to each of your characters that doesn’t already have one and reconsider the names of those characters who do.
TELL ME MORE
In this step, you’ll start interviewing all the folks that showed up for your casting call so you can learn a bit more about them in order to decide who to hire to be in your story.
The first step in any interview is to get to get the character’s name. You probably already have names for several of your potential cast members, but there are likely to be some whose names you don’t yet know.
For the nameless ones, it’s time to give them a moniker. Names give us our first impression of a character. In most stories you’ll want to keep most of your characters’ names normal and simple. But if they are too normal or if everyone has an ordinary name, you’re just boring your readers.
However, if your story requires typical names, try to pick ones that don’t sound like one another or your readers may become confused as to which one you are talking about. Personally, I’ve always had trouble remembering which one is Sauron and which is Sarumon, but that’s just me. Nonetheless, try to stay away from character combos like Jeanne and Jenny, Sonny and Sammy, Bart And Bret and – well, you get the idea.
If your story might benefit from giving some of your characters more unusual names, consider nicknames. Nicknames are wonderful dramatic devices because they can work with the character’s apparent nature, against it for humiliating or comedic effect, play into the plot by telegraphing the activities in which the character will engage, create irony, or provide mystery by hinting at information or a backstory for the character that led to its nickname but has not yet been divulged to the readers.
Keep in mind these are just temporary names for identification. You’ll have the chance to change them later. So for now, just add a name to every character in your potential cast list.
What’s in a name? Not a name like “Joe” or “Sally” but something that opens the door to further development like “Muttering Murdock” or “Susan the Stilt.” Often coming up with a nickname or even a derogatory name one child might call another is a great way to establish a character’s heart.
What can we say about Muttering Murdock? The best way to develop a character (or for that matter, any aspect of your story) is to start with loose thread and then ask questions. So, for ol’ Muttering Murdock, the name is the loose end just hanging out there for us to pull. We might ask, “Why does Murdock Mutter?” (That’s obvious, of course!) But what else might we ask? Is Murdock a human being? Is Murdock male or female? How old is Murdock? What attributes describe Murdock’s physical traits? How smart is Murdock? Does Murdock have any talents? What about hobbies, education, religious affiliation? And so on, and so on….
We don’t need to know the answers to these questions, we just have to ask them.
Why Does Murdock Mutter?
Because he has a physical deformity for the lips.
Because he talks to himself, lost in his own world due to the untimely death of his parents, right in front of his eyes
Because he feels he can’t hold his own with anyone face to face, so he makes all his comments so low that no one can hear, giving him the last word in his own mind.
Because he is lost in thought about truly deep and complex issues, so he is merely talking to himself. No one ever knows that he is a genius because he never speaks clearly enough to be understood.
You get the idea. You just pull out all the stops and be creative. See, that’s the key. If you try to come up with a character from scratch, well good luck. But if you pick an arbitrary name, it can’t help but generate a number of questions. If you aren’t trying to come up with the one perfect answer to each question, you can let your Muse roam far and wide. Without constraints, you’ll be amazed at the odd variety of potential answers she brings back!
In our sample story, we’ve added names to all our characters with a good mix of the ordinary and the odd, including proper names and nick names. Some names just came to mind. Others are alterations of names of characters I’ve seen in television shows and movies. Some are based on sound-alike first and last names. In other words, names aren’t hard to come by, and mixing them up a bit just livens the party.
You’ll note that in several names, such as those of the posse, the gang, the businessmen, and the shopkeepers, I’ve given them organizational names such as The Gazpacho Enforcers. In so doing, I’ve given the town our example story the name of Gazpacho, so always be aware of opportunities to extend other parts of your story than the one you are currently working on. I’ll put the town name of Gazpacho in the Notes window to make sure I can refer to it later.
Also note that I’ve added an all new group character at the end of the list – a charitable organization: the Sons of the Gazpacho Ladies Auxiliary Support Society. The name just fell into my mind when I was naming all the Gazpacho groups and it struck me as to how ridiculous and pompous they sounded. Again, be on the lookout for random creative ideas: they can pop out of the shadows at any time!
Jedediah Farnsworth – The Old Sheriff
James Vestibule – The New Sheriff
The Hole in the Head Gang – Gang of Cutthroats
Armoire Vestibule Gang Leader (The sheriff’s wife)
The Gazpacho Enforcers – A posse
Stiff-Leg Sam – Deputy
Shandy Stilton – Mayor
J.W. Blinkers – Banker
The Gazpacho Consortium – Businessmen
The Gazpacho Retail Trade Association – Shopkeepers
Nell Goodtime – saloon girl
Slick Nick – bartender
Hugo Laughter – blacksmith
Bart Costello – rancher
Brother Bob – preacher
Nancy Lacy – schoolmarm
The Tumbling Troubadours – A troupe of traveling acrobats
Ulysses S. Grant – President of the United States
Percy Prancy – A bird watcher
Ghost of Julius Caesar – Annoying Spirit
The Sons of the Gazpacho Ladies Auxiliary Support Society – Charitable organization
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