Throughlines – And How to Use Them!

Some time ago I wrote an article that described the difference between the two basic forms of story structure with the following phrase:

You spin a tale, but you 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, if one is not concerned with structure, one can still relate a conglomeration of intermingled scenarios, each with its own meaning and emotional impact. Many power 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 one point to another. A tale, then, is a throughline, 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 throughlines are layered, one upon another, much as a craftsperson might weave a tapestry. Each individual thread is a tale that is spun, making it complete, unbroken, and possessing its own sequence. But collectively, the linear pattern of colors in all the throughlines form a single, overall pattern in the tapestry, 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 throughline 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.

You won’t find the word, “throughline” in the dictionary. In fact, as I type this in my word processor, it lists the word as misspelled. Chris Huntley and I used the word when we developed the concept as part of our work creating the Dramatica theory (and software). Since then, we have found it quite the useful moniker to describe an essential component of story structure.

Throughlines then, are any elements of a story that have their own beginnings, middles, and ends. For example, every character’s growth has its own throughline. 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 throughline must be true to itself, and also must take into consideration the effect of outside influences.

Now that we know what a throughline is, how can we use it? Well, right off the bat, it helps us break even the most complex story structures down into a collection of much simpler elements. Using 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.

Before the throughline concept, writers traditionally 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.

Once you get started, its easy to see the value of the throughline approach, and just as easy to come up with all kinds of uses for it.

Melanie Anne Phillips
Creator, StoryWeaver
Co-creator, Dramatica

This technique is from Dramatica

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Creating Characters from Plot

Introduction

If you already have a story idea, it is a simple matter to create a whole cast of characters that will grow out of your plot. In this lesson we’re going to lay out a method of developing characters from a thumbnail sketch of what your story is about.Thumbnail Sketch

The most concise way to describe the key elements of a story is with a “Thumbnail Sketch.” This is simply a short line or two, less than a paragraph, that gets right to the heart of the matter. You see them all the time in TV Guide listings and in the short descriptions that show up on cable or satellite television program information.

A thumbnail sketch of The Matrix, for example, might read, “A computer hacker discovers that the world we know is really just a huge computer program. He is freed from the program by a group of rebels intent on destroying the system, and ultimately joins them as their most powerful cyber warrior.”

Clearly, there is a lot more to the finished movie than that, but the thumbnail sketch provides enough information to get a good feel for what the story is about. Generally, such a description contains information about the plot, since the audience will choose what they want to watch on the kind of things they expect to happen in a story. If it is an action story, there may be no mention of characters at all as in, “A giant meteor threatens to demolish the earth.” If it is a love story, there may be little plot but several characters, as in, “A young Amish girl falls in love with a traveling salesman. Her father and his chosen match for her oppose the romance, but her free-minded mother and exiled aunt encourage her.”

Whether or not characters are specifically mentioned in a thumbnail sketch, they are always at least inferred. For your own story, then, the first step is to come up with a short description like those used as illustrations above. For the purposes of this lesson, we’ll propose the following hypothetical story to use as an example:

Suppose our story is described as the tribulations of a town Marshall trying to fend off a gang of outlaws who bleed the town dry.

The Expected Characters

The only explicitly called for characters are the Marshall and the gang. So, we’ll list them as required characters of the story. Certainly you could tell a story with just those characters, but it might seem a little under-populated. Realistically, you’d expect the gang to have a leader and the town to have a mayor. The Marshall might have a deputy. And, if the town is being bled dry, then some businessmen and shopkeepers would be in order as well. So the second stage of the process is to step a bit beyond what is actually written and to slightly enlarge the dramatic world described to include secondary and support characters too.
The Usual Characters

Range a little wider now, and list some characters that aren’t necessarily expected, but wouldn’t seem particularly out of place in such a story.

Example:

A saloon girl, a bartender, blacksmith, rancher, preacher, school teacher, etc.Unusual Characters

Now, let yourself go a bit and list a number of characters that would seem somewhat out of place, but still explainable, in such a story.

Example:

A troupe of traveling acrobats, Ulysses S. Grant, a Prussian Duke, a bird watcher.

Adding one or two somewhat unexpected characters to a story can liven up the cast and make it seem original, rather than predictable.Outlandish Characters

Finally, pull out all the stops and list some completely inappropriate characters that would take a heap of explaining to your reader/audience if they showed up in your story.

Example:

Richard Nixon, Martians, the Ghost of Julius Caesar

Although you’ll likely discard most of these characters, just the process of coming up with them can lead to new ideas and directions for your story.

For example, the town Marshall might become more interesting if he was a history buff, specifically reading about the Roman Empire. In his first run-in with the gang, he is knocked out cold with a concussion. For the rest of the story, he keeps imagining the Ghost of Julius Caesar, giving him unwanted advice.Casting Call

Now, you assemble all the characters you have proposed for your story so far, be they Expected, Usual, Unusual, or Outlandish.

The task at hand is to weed out of this list of prospective characters all the ones we are sure we don’t want in our story. At first blush, this might seem easy, but before you make hasty decisions, keep in mind the use we came up with for Caesar’s Ghost. Consider: How might traveling acrobats be employed dramatically? As a place for the marshal to hide in greasepaint when the gang temporarily takes over the town? Or how about if the school teacher befriends them, and then employs their aid in busting the deputy out of jail when he falls under the gang’s control?

How about Ulysses S. Grant showing up on his way to a meeting with the governor, and the gang members must impersonate honest town’s folk until he and his armed cavalry escort have departed? Could make for a very tense or a very funny scene, depending on how you play it.

Try to put each of these characters in juxtaposition with each of the others, at least as a mental exercise, to see if any kind of chemistry boils up between them. In this way, you may find that some of the least likely characters on your initial consideration turn out to be almost indispensable to the development of your story!A Word About Plot…

You may not have noticed, but a lot of what we have just done with characters has had the added benefit of developing whole sequences of events, series of interactions, and additional plot lines. In fact, working with characters in this way often does as much for your story’s plot as it does in the creation of characters themselves.

Hence, it is never too early to work with characters. As soon as you have an initial story idea, no matter how lacking in detail or thinly developed it may be, it can pay to work with your characters as a means of adding to your plot!Study Exercises: Squeezing Characters out of the Thumbnail Sketch

1. Open a TV Listing Guide or view some descriptions on your cable or satellite guide.

2. Pick 3 descriptions from movies you know and list the explicitly called for characters.

3. Base on your knowledge of each story, list the usual characters, unusual characters, and outlandish characters (if any).

4. Pick 3 descriptions from movies you don’t know and list the explicitly called for characters.

5. Use your imagination to devise usual characters, unusual characters, and outlandish characters for each story.

6. Watch each of the three movies you hadn’t seen and see how your proposed characters compare to what was actually done.

7. Consider that you might write your own story based on the description with the characters you created and have it be so different from the actual movie that it has become your own story! (This is also a handy trick for coming up with your own original story ideas based on the hundreds of descriptions available each week. More than likely, your creative concepts will be nothing like the movie the description was portraying!)Writing Exercises: Creating Characters

1. Write a thumbnail sketch for a story you wish to develop.

2. List the explicitly described characters.

3. Come up with some additional supporting “usual” characters.

4. Be a bit creative and propose some unusual characters.

5. Let yourself loose and devise some outlandish characters.

6. Imagine each of the characters interacting with each of the others and determine which characters to employ in your story.

7. Use the scenarios created by your character interactions to expand your story’s plot.

Melanie Anne Phillips
Creator, StoryWeaver
Co-creator, Dramatica

This technique is from StoryWeaver

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Writing from a Character’s Point of View

Perhaps the best way to instill real feelings in a character is to stand in his or her shoes and write from the character’s point of view. Unfortunately, this method also holds the greatest danger of undermining the meaning of a story.

As an example, suppose we have two characters, Joe and Tom, who are business competitors. Joe hates Tom and Tom hates Joe. We sit down to write an argument between them. First, we stand in Joe’s shoes and speak vehemently of Tom’s transgressions. Then, we stand in Tom’s shoes and pontificate on Joe’s aggressions. By adopting the character point of view, we have constructed an exchange of honest and powerful emotions. We have also undermined the meaning of our story because Joe and Tom have come across as being virtually the same.

A story might have a Protagonist and an Antagonist, but between Joe and Tom, who is who? Each sees himself as the Protagonist and the other as the Antagonist. If we simply write the argument from each point of view, the audience has no idea which is REALLY which.

The opposite problem occurs if you stand back from your characters and assign roles as Protagonist and Antagonist without considering the characters’ points of view. In such a case, the character clearly establish the story’s meaning, but they seem to be “walking through” the story, hitting the marks, and never really expressing themselves as actual human beings.

The solution, of course, is to explore both approaches. You need to know what role each character is to play in the story’s overall meaning – the big picture. But, you also must stand in their shoes and write with passion to make them human.

Melanie Anne Phillips

This article was drawn from StoryWeaver

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Blowing the Story Bubble

Remember blowing bubbles with that solution in the little bottles and the plastic wand? The craft of writing is a bit like blowing bubbles (life is like a box of chocolates!) This holds true not only for your dramatic approach, but also for the characters in your story as well.

The study of real bubbles is actually a science which combines physics, geometry, and even calculus! And, as with most natural phenomena, the dynamics that drive them have a parallel in psychology as well. For example, the math that describes a Black Hole in space can equally be applied to describing a prejudice in the mind.

So, by observing bubbles we can more easily grasp some otherwise intangible concepts about the psychology of stories and of the characters in them.

Turning our attention to stories, let’s look at several dramatic endeavors that can benefit by applying the qualities of bubbles. Bubbles burst. Sometimes you want them too, other times you don’t. The larger a bubble gets, the more impressive it is, but the more fragile as well. Until a bubble bursts the tension along its surface (surface tension) increases. But once it has burst, all the tension is gone. So the key is to blow the bubble as large as you can without exceeding the maximum sustainable tension. To do this, you need to know when to stop blowing, seal it off, and let it float on it’s own. In addition, you need to consider how hard to blow, how fast to blow, and to master the art of pulling away the wand to allow that magic moment when a bubble with a hole in it seals itself to become a perfect sphere.

When introducing a dramatic element into your story for the first time, consider how much material to work with at a single dramatic unit. Too little material tries to blow a bubble with not enough solution. It may not even make a film across the wand, and if it does, it will snap at the first breath before a bubble can form. Too much, and it drips off the wand, slobbering all over everything else, and snapping apart as well, because the sheer weight of the stuff makes the membrane too thick to flex. So, don’t work with dramatic units too large or small. Don’t focus on details too tiny or grand movements too large. Find the range and scope of your dramatic concepts that your readers or audience can hold onto while you pump it full of promise and then let it float into their hearts and minds on its own.

How hard you blow is equally important. As you may recall, blowing too hard will simply spit the solution right out of the wand and onto your parents’ carpet. (Why you chose to blow bubbles in the house even after having been told not to is no more fathomable than why you chose to be a writer, even though you knew better!)

Blow too soft, and your solution will just wiggle and vibrate in the wand, never bowing out to become a bubble at all. Eventually the solution in the wand will simply evaporate, and you’ll have spent a lot of time blowing with no bubble to show for it. Now a master storyteller can use this effect to his or her advantage. Get the right amount of solution on the wand and then just vibrate the blazes out of it with a gentle blow, tantalizing your audience, who is going to wonder if anything will every come of it. Just when it looks like the solution has almost evaporated too much to work, you pick up the airflow and form the bubble right before their eyes. Or, you might just keep it vibrating, a red herring, and simply let it dissolve out of the wand. Better be sure of your skills, though, because you want your audience to know you blew it, not to think you blew it.

And do you recall how if you blow at one intensity you get a single bubble, and if you blow with a different push you get a string of small bubbles? In fact, you can even get a series of medium bubbles if you find that narrow mid-range.

Dramatically, you can drop a lot of little bits of information, a few mid-sized bits of information, or one big bit, all with a single blow. (Killed 7 with one blow!). These are the Multi-Appreciation-Moments (M.A.M.) in which a single dramatic movement, passage, or discourse propels more than one dramatic element into the story.

Bubbles have size. The size of a bubble, in writing as in soap (or in writing “soaps”), depends primarily on the size of your wand and the huff in your blow.

Short stories are one size wand. Mini-series are another. Haiku are still one more. Each one has a maximum size of bubble it can produce, no matter how hard you blow. But size isn’t everything. There is such a thing as the beauty of perfection. Your idea is your solution, your format is your wand; try to make sure not to blow too hard for the wand/solution ratio you are using.

Surface Tension – wonderful phrase, that! Someone should use that for a title. More wonderful still is the way it works. Stories are about structure and passion. Your solution is about water and soap. Too much water and nothing happens. Too much soap and it all glops up. When you get the right mix of structure and passion, you’ve got the right raw material for a great bubble.

What holds the surface of the bubble together is the attraction among the soap and water molecules. What keeps it from collapsing is a slightly higher pressure on the inside than on the outside. A larger bubble has more tension because there is more surface. And yet, the total surface area of a collection of smaller bubbles far exceeds that of a single bubble occupying the same space. In addition, smaller bubbles are more stable, lasting far longer.

Use big bubbles for big events of singular identity with a limited life span. Use smaller bubbles collectively as a consistent foundation of longer duration.

Put your ear to the soap foam on dishwater or a hot bath, and though the mass remains largely constant, you can hear the satisfying snap, crackle, and pop of individual bubbles as they burst. Such formations can add stability to your story, even while providing an underlying level of surface tension, punctuated by hundreds of tiny eruptions. In addition, you can shape foam into all kinds of complex forms, while the shape of individual bubbles is far more limited.

While bubbles, on their own, are usually round, if you dip a bent piece of wire (such as a clothes hanger) in solution, you can create triangles, squares, and even approximations of hyper-cubes!

Although one might argue that the film from one wire side to the next does not comprise a bubble, and the enclosed area of such a shape does not either, guided by these outside influences a shaped bubble may indeed occur within the space bounded by the wires that doesn’t directly touch the wires. One shape, for example, may create a square bubble within another bubble. So, although the larger bubble is directly connected to the wires, the inner bubble is only connected to the planar surfaces of the outer bubble.

Ah, but I wax scientific. Fact is, the “set pieces” of your story are the wires dipped into your dramatic solution. An obvious heavy-handed control technique, you can also create very specific shapes by building those second-generation bubbles within bubbles, which are not formed by direct influence of your set pieces, but rather by indirect influence from being attached to those dramatics that ARE connected to the set pieces.

It’s a great point, but not for the faint of heart.

Bubbles combine. When two bubbles encounter each other, they might just bounce off like billiard balls. But if conditions are right, they join, creating a common interface between them. They are spherical except where they are joined, which becomes a flat side. More than two bubbles can combine, and when they do, all sorts of additional, symmetrical interfaces are created.

You entire story should be like a collection of bubbles, interfaced together. Each single bubble is another dramatic element or point. Over the course of your story you have blown them one by one until your story has fully taken shape. Then, on their one, one by one they begin to pop. Some of the solution is spattered away, some is absorbed by the remaining bubbles. Due to the extra solution, the remaining bubbles pop faster and faster until all the original bubbles have burst.

Let’s close by seeing how bubble science can help describe what your characters do you in your story. Suppose Sally calls on the phone complaining to Jane about a personal issue she is facing. Jane knows just what to say, but simply saying it will be rejected and not have the comforting effect she wants. In fact, Jane is smart enough to realize that she has to start out slow and easy, and over the course of the conversation blow a bubble of comfort big enough to enclose the problem.

So, with patience, Jane continues to talk to Sally, starting by enclosing a small part of the issue, then slowly expanding her support until it hold the whole thing inside. Now if Jane is too full of herself, has the habit of “beating a dead horse,” is emotionally needy herself and has to have confirmation from Sally that her problem is completely solved, or is just inexperienced, then she won’t know when to stop blowing and will continue pumping support into the conversation until the bubble gets so large it bursts.

But, if she knows what she’s doing, Jane will recognize when the bubble is big enough and then pull away the wand and stop blowing so that the sphere can form. She can do this by changing the subject, not off-topic, but to something tangential, to something touched upon in the conversation, but instead of talking about the part of that new topic that was connected to the personal problem, she now talks about other aspects of that topic that don’t involve Sally’s original issue.

Moving sideways in topic at the right time is like pulling the wand sideways from the bubble so that it can close.

Of course, Sally might be mired in her problem and stuck to the wand. But Anne may be in the room with Jane, hear that Sally is trying to come back to the original issue, and (being a good friend and student of psychology) realize another lateral move is needed. Anne would then raise her hand to get Jane’s attention (who would ask Sally to hold for a moment). Anne offers another off-topic comment based on what she has heard of the conversation. Jane passes the comment on to Sally on Anne’s behalf, and now Sally has been doubly distracted. At this point, either the bubble is free of the wand, or Sally simply won’t let go.

If the bubble is free, then it’s effect will remain within Sally long after the conversation and will work to resolve her angst. If it is not free, the air will just whoosh right back out of the wand and the bubble will deflate as if it never was, and Sally can go on moping about her problem.

Now, you might think this is all very complex, but it is this kind of bubble interaction that makes characters seem fluid rather than built of bricks. But do real people act like that? Sure they do. In fact, the very dramatic scenario I just described happened to me two days ago. That’s how I got the idea for this writing tip.

I was “Jane,” and with “Anne’s” perceptive interjection, I was able to assuage Sally’s angst, free the bubble, and Sally has been quite happy for the last 48 hours.

Real life psychology, character psychology, story psychology… the answer is blowin’ in the wind.

Melanie Anne Phillips
Creator, StoryWeaver

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Should Your Main Character Change?

A STORY STRUCTURE QUESTION from our Dramatica story structure software (learn all about it at Storymind.com):

“By the end of your story, do you want your main character to have changed his or her nature like Scrooge or to have remained steadfast in nature like Harry Potter?”

EXPLANATION:

Your Main Character represents your readers’ position in your story. Therefore, whether he or she changes or not has a huge impact on your readers’ story experience and the message you are sending to them.

Some Main Characters grow to the point of changing their nature or attitude regarding a central personal issue like Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. Others grow in their resolve, holding onto their nature or attitude against all obstacles like Dr. Richard Kimble in The Fugitive.

Change can be good if the character is on the wrong track to begin with. It can also be bad if the character was on the right track. Similarly, remaining Steadfast is good if the character is on the right track, but bad if she is misguided or mistaken.

Think about the message you want to send to your audience, and whether the Main Character’s path should represent the proper or improper way of dealing with the story’s central issue. Then select a changing or steadfast Main Character accordingly.

THEORY:

Do you want your story to bring your audience to a point of change or to reinforce its current view? Oddly enough, choosing a steadfast Main Character may bring an audience to change and choosing a change character may influence the audience to remain steadfast. Why? It depends upon whether or not your audience shares the Main Character’s point of view to begin with.

Suppose your audience and your Main Character do NOT agree in attitudes about the central issue of the story. Even so, the audience will still identify with the Main Character because she represents the audience’s position in the story. So, if the Main Character grows in resolve to remain steadfast and succeeds, then the message to your audience is, “Change and adopt the Main Character’s view if you wish to succeed in similar situations.”

Clearly, since either change or steadfast can lead to either success or failure in a story, when you factor in where the audience stands a great number of different kinds of audience impact can be created by your choice.

In answering this question, therefore, consider not only what you want your Main Character to do as an individual, but also how that influences your story’s message and where your audience stands in regard to that issue to begin with.

USAGE:

Just because a Main Character ultimately remains steadfast does not mean she never considers changing. Similarly, a Change Main Character does not have to be changing all the time. In fact, that is the conflict with which she is constantly faced: to stick it out or to alter her approach in the face of ever-increasing opposition.

Illustrating your Main Character as wavering can make her much more human. Still, if her motivation is strong enough, your Main Character may hold the course or move toward change from the opening scene to the denouement. It all depends on the kind of experience you wish to create for your audience.

There is no right or wrong degree of certainty or stability in a Main Character. Just make it clear to your audience by the end of the story if she has been changed or not by the experience. Sometimes this happens by forcing your Main Character to make a choice between her old way of doing things or a new way. Another way of illustrating your Main Character’s resolve is to establish her reaction in a particular kind of situation at the beginning of the story that tells us something about her nature. After the story’s climax, you can bring back a similar kind of situation and see if she reacts the same way or not. From this, your audience will determine if she has Changed or remained Steadfast.

What if a Main Character Changes when she should Remain Steadfast, or Remains Steadfast when she should Change? Choosing your Main Character’s Resolve describes what your Main Character does without placing a value judgment on her. The appropriateness of her Resolve is determined by other dynamics in your story which will be addressed later. For now, simply choose if your Main Character’s nature has Changed or Remained Steadfast.

CONTEXTUAL EXAMPLE: Steadfast as the Resolve

At the end of the story, the Main Character’s basic way of seeing things has remained the same as it was at the beginning of the story. For example, a man wrongly accused of murdering his wife remains steadfast in his pursuit of the real killer believing this will eventually solve his problems; Despite all attempts to convert her, a woman remains true to her faith in her religion believing her god will protect her; etc.

CONTEXTUAL EXAMPLE: Change as the Resolve

At the end of the story, the Main Character’s basic way of seeing things has changed from what it was at the beginning of the story. For example, a stubborn bounty hunter, who sees every criminal as “guilty,” changes to realize this isn’t true for every criminal and decides that he is chasing an innocent man; a woman who has always put her job before her family changes, and puts her family first by adapting her schedule so she can spend more time with her husband, even though it will mean missing a promotion; etc.

This tip was excerpted from our Dramatica Story Structure Software with a patented Story Engine that cross-references your answers to dramatic questions (like the one above) to help you build the perfect structure for your story without holes or inconsistencies.

Visit Storymind.com for details on Dramatica and to try it risk-free for 90 days.

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Your Story As A Person

All too often, authors get mired in the details of a story, trying to cram everything in and make all the pieces fit.  Characters are then seen only as individuals, so they often unintentionally overlap each other’s dramatic functions. The genre is depersonalized so that the author trying to write within a genre ends up fashioning a formula story and breaking no new ground. The plot becomes an exercise in logistics, and the theme emerges as a black and white pontification that hits the audience like a brick.

You have days, months, perhaps even years to prepare your story to exude enough charisma to sustain just one 2 or 3 hour conversation with your readers or audience.  They expect all that effort to result in a tightly packed story that holds their interest, transports them to a world of imagination, and also makes sense along the way.

Problem is, if you keep your nose buried too far into the details, you might be undercutting the overall impact if you lose sight of how all the pieces work together.  We all get drawn deeper and deeper into our stories as we massage every little aspect individually.  That’s why it is a good idea to come up for air once in a while, step back, and see how your story plays as a whole.

One of the best ways to do this is to think of your story as a person you’ve invited to dinner, and to let you story tell you all about itself over the meal.

Here’s how it might go.  Let’s call your story “Joe.” You know that Joe is something of an authority on a subject in which your are interested. You offer him an appetizer, and between bites of pate, he tells you of his adventures and experiences, opinions and perspectives.

Over soup, he describes all the different drives and motivations that were pulling him forward or holding him back. These drives are your characters, and they are the aspects of Joe’s personality.

While munching on a spinach salad, Joe describes his efforts to resolve the problems that grew out of his journey. This is your plot, and all reasonable efforts need to be covered. You note what he is saying, just an an audience will, to be sure there are no flaws in his logic. There can also be no missing approaches that obviously should have been tried, or Joe will sound like an idiot.

Over the main course of poached quail eggs and Coho salmon (on a bed of grilled seasonal greens), Joe elucidates the moral dilemmas he faced, how he considered what was good and bad, better or worse. This is your theme, and all sides of the issues must be explored. If Joe is one-sided in this regard, he will come off as bigoted or closed-minded. Rather than being swayed by his conclusions, you (and an audience) will find him boorish and will disregard his passionate prognostications.

Dessert is served and you make time, between spoonfuls of chocolate soufflé (put in the oven before the first course to ready by the end of dinner) to consider your dinner guest. Was he entertaining? Did he make sense? Did he touch on topical issues with light-handed thoughtfulness? Did he seem centered, together, and focused? And most important, would you invite him to dinner again? If you can’t answer yes to each of these questions, you need to send your story back to finishing school (a re-write), for he is not ready to entertain an audience.

Your story is a person.  It is your child. You gave birth to it, you nurtured it, you have hopes for it. You try to instill your values, to give it the tools it needs to succeed and to point it in the right direction. But, like all children, there comes a time where you have to let go of who you wanted it to be and to love and accept who it has become.

When your story entertains an audience, you will not be there to explain its faults or compensate for its shortcomings. You must be sure your child is prepared to stand alone, to do well for itself.  If you are not sure, you must send it back to school.

Personifying a story allows an author to step back from the role of creator and to experience the story as an audience will. This is not to say that each and every detail in not important, but rather that the details are no more or less important than the overall impact of the story as a whole.

Melanie Anne Phillips
Creator, StoryWeaver

This article is drawn from my
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Tricking the Muse: The Creativity “Two-Step”

The concept behind this method of finding inspiration is quite simple, really: It is easier to come up with many ideas than it is to come up with one idea.

Now that may sound counter-intuitive, but consider this… When you are working on a particular story and you run into a specific structural problem, you are looking for a creative inspiration in a very narrow area. But creativity isn’t something you can control like a power tool or channel onto a task. Rather, it is random, and applies itself to whatever it wants.

Yet creative inspiration is always running at full tilt within us, coming up with new ideas, thinking new thoughts – just not the thoughts we are looking for. So if we sit and wait for the Muse to shine its light on the exact structural problem we’re stuck on, it might be days before lightning strikes that very spot.

Fortunately, we can trick Creativity into working on our problem by making it think it is being random. As an example, consider this log line for a story: A Marshall in an Old West border town struggles with a cutthroat gang that is bleeding the town dry.

Step One: Asking Questions

Now if you had the assignment to sit down and turn this into a full-blown, interesting, one-of-a-kind story, you might be a bit stuck for what to do next. So, try this. First ask some questions:

1. How old is the Marshall?

2. How much experience does he have?

3. Is he a good shot?

4. How many men has he killed (if any)

5. How many people are in the gang?

6. Does it have a single leader?

7. Is the gang tight-knit?

8. What are they taking from the town?

9. How long have they been doing this?

You could probably go on and on and easily come up with a hundred questions based on that single log line. It might not seem at first that this will help you expand your story, but look at what’s really happened. You have tricked your Muse into coming up with a detailed list of what needs to be developed! And it didn’t even hurt. In fact, it was actually fun.

Step Two: Answering Questions

But that’s just the first step. Next, take each of these questions and come up with as many different answers as you can think of. Let your Muse run wild through your mind. You’ll probably find you get some ordinary answers and some really outlandish ones, but you’ll absolutely get a load of them!

a) How old is the Marshall?

a. 28

b. 56

c. 86

d. 17

e. 07

f. 35

Some of these potential ages are ridiculous – or are they? Every ordinary story based on such a log line would have the Marshall be 28 or 35. Just another dull story, grinding through the mill.

Step One Revisited

But what if your Marshall was 86 or 7 years old? Let’s switch back to Step One and ask some questions about his age.

For example:

c. 86

1. How would an 86 year old become a Marshall?

2. Can he still see okay?

3. What physical maladies plague him?

4. Is he married?

5. What kind of gun does he use?

6. Does he have the respect of the town?

And on and on…

Return to Step Two

As you might expect, now we switch back to Step Two again and answer each question as many different ways as you can.

Example:

5. What kind of gun does he use?

a) He uses an ancient musket, can barely lift it, but is a crack shot and miraculously hits whatever he aims at.

b) He uses an ancient musket and can’t hit the broad side of a barn. But somehow, his oddball shots ricochet off so many things, he gets the job done anyway, just not as he planned.

c) He uses a Gattling gun attached to his walker.

d) He doesn’t use a gun at all. In 63 years with the Texas Rangers, he never needed one and doesn’t need one now.

e) He uses a sawed off shotgun, but needs his deputy to pull the trigger for him as he aims.

f) He uses a whip.

g) He uses a knife, but can’t throw it past 5 feet anymore.

And on and on again…

Methinks you begin to get the idea. First you ask questions, which trick the Muse into finding fault with your work – an easy thing to do that your Creative Spirit already does on its own – often to your dismay.

Next, you turn the Muse loose to come up with as many answers for each question as you possibly can.

Then, you switch back to question mode and ask as many as you can about each of your answers.

And then you come up with as many answers as possible for those questions.

You can carry this process out for as many generations as you like, but the bulk of story material you develop will grow so quickly, you’ll likely not want to go much further than we went in our example.

Imagine, if you just asked 10 questions about the original log line and responded to each of them with 10 potential answers, you’d have 100 story points to consider.

Then, if you went as far as we just did for each one, you’d ask 10 questions of each answer and end up with 1,000 potential story points. And the final step of 10 answers for each of these would yield 10,000 story points!

Now in the real world, you probably won’t bother answering each question – just those that intrigue you. And, you won’t trouble yourself to ask questions about every answer – just the ones that suggest they have more development to offer and seem to lead in a direction you might like to go with your story.

The key point is that rather than staring at a blank page trying to find that one structural solution that will fill a gap or connect two points, use the Creativity Two-Step to trick your Muse into spewing out the wealth of ideas it naturally wants to provide.

This tip is taken from my StoryWeaver Story Development Software in which the whole first section helps you find inspiration and then grow those creative ideas into your characters, plot, theme, and genre.  Try it risk-free for 90 days!

Melanie Anne Phillips
Creator, StoryWeaver

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Finding Inspiration for Writers

Finding Inspiration

We all know that writing is not just about assembling words, but also about assembling ideas. When we actually sit down to write, we may have our ideas all worked out in advance or we may have no idea what we want to say – just a desire to say something. But either way, the one thing we could always use more of is inspiration.

In the work-a-day world, some of us must labor at uninspiring jobs, which dries up our creative juices. Others may be so driven to write a novel or a screenplay, but haven’t yet found a thing to say, sometimes leading to the doldrums we call writer’s block. For all of us, though, life intrudes, making it difficult to find and fan the spark within, Yet even in the worst of it, we all share the immutable desire to express ourselves through the written word.

So how can we break our Muse free from that straight jacket and let the ideas flow? Here are a few suggestions to try.

You might begin by writing about yourself. Even though you want to create fiction, writing a short autobiographical piece is like a warm-up exercise. This works because you don’t have to invent anything, just choose the words. Think of it as priming the pump.
Often I have written material as a means of getting something off my chest, out of my thoughts, or perhaps just to get a grip on nebulous feelings or issues by forcing myself to put them into concrete terms.

You can do this exercise on social media and share with friends, or if it is too close to home, you can just keep it to yourself. But in either case, you’ve greased the wheels and the is absolutely the first prerequisite to finding inspiration.

Some of what I write this way has actually turned out to be salable as extended anecdotes, essays on personal growth, or insights into meaningful emotional experiences. But, most of what I have written for my audience of one remains with me. Perhaps it is too personal to share, or just too personal to have meaning to anyone else. No matter, though. It has done its job and now I am ready to work on the story I really want to write.

If writing autobiographical material isn’t your cup of tea, try this: Pick three random words out of thin air. I’ll pick Red, Ground, and Rover as an example. NextI’ll ask myself what those words might mean, if they were all taken together… Red, Ground, Rover. Rover could be a dog. Ground Rover could be hamburger… No, that’s not right… Moving on… Maybe these three words could be about someone roving over red ground – perhaps a Johnny Appleseed kind of guy on Mars. Now we’re cooking Okay, let’s run with that idea.

(Remember, the point here is not to create an actual story but to jog your creative process.)

Blurting out something that has no conscious intent behind it can be a useful trick in overcoming writer’s block. It seems that writer’s block most often occurs when we are intentionally trying to determine what we want to talk about. But, when we just put something forth and then try to figure out what it might mean, a myriad of possibilities suggest themselves.

If you like, take a moment and try it. Just jot down a few nonsense words to create a phrase. Then, consider what they might mean. Rather than attempting to create, you are now in analysis mode, the inverse emotional state of trying to produce something out of nothing. You’ll probably be surprised at how many interpretations of your phrase readily come to mind.

Now if you still aren’t ready to write, you can carry this a little further. Going back to my example, I’m thinking, Mars is red, and the Martian Rover explored the planet. Looks like I’m starting a science fiction story.

But what to do next? How about another nonsense phrase: “minion onion manner house.” What in the world does that mean? Let’s tie it in to the first phrase. Suppose there is some underling (minion) who is hunting for wild onions on Mars (onions being so suited to the nutrients in the soil that they grow wild in isolated patches). The underling works at the Manner House of a wealthy Martian frontier settler, but is known as Red Ground Rover because of his free-time onion prospecting activities.

Now, these phrases weren’t planned as examples for this book. To create an actual example, I just blurted them out as I suggest you do. And once they are out there, just as we see pictures in ink blots, animals in the clouds, and mythic figures in the constellations, we impose our desire for patterns even on the meaningless. And in so doing, we often find unexpected inspiration.

More than likely, none of our ideas are suited to what we are attempting to write, yet we have successfully dislodged our minds from the vicious cycle of trying to figure out what to say. And, returning to the specific task of our story, we are will just as likely be surprised to find that writer’s block has vanished while we were distracted.

Melanie Anne Phillips
Creator, StoryWeaver

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