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.
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
Over the course of the story, your reader/audience has come to know your characters and to feel for them. The story doesn’t end when your characters and their relationships reach a climax. Rather, the reader/audience will want to know the aftermath – how it turned out for each character and each relationship. In addition, the audience needs a little time to say goodbye – to let the character walk off into the sunset or to mourn for them before the story ends.
This is in effect the conclusion, the wrap-up. After everything has happened to your characters, after the final showdown with their respective demons, what are they like? How have they changed? If a character began the story as a skeptic, does it now have faith? If they began the story full of hatred for a mother that abandoned them, have they now made revelations to the effect that she was forced to do this, and now they no longer hate? This is what you have to tell the audience, how their journeys changed them, have the resolved their problems, or not?
And in the end, this constitutes a large part of your story’s message. It is not enough to know if a story ends in success or failure, but also if the characters are better off emotionally or plagued with even greater demons, regardless of whether or not the goal was achieved.
You can show what happens to your characters directly, through a conversation by others about them, or even in a post-script on each that appears after the story is over or in the ending credits of a movie.
How you do this is limited only by your creative inspiration, but make sure you review each character and each relationship and provide at least a minimal dismissal for each.
Melanie Anne Phillips Creator, StoryWeaver Co-creator, Dramatica
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Every story has a core – that concept at the center that pulls all of the story elements into a cohesive whole, establishes meaning and message, and provides the story with an overall identity.
There are four fundamental kinds of cores, though each has endless variations.
1. Situation stories that are all about a fixed situation people must grapple with, such as being stuck in an overturned ocean liner, locked in a high-rise building with terrorists, being handcuffed to a murder, being the only member of a group with a particular gender or race, having a physical deformity.
2. Mind stories that are all about fixed mind sets such as exploring or overcoming prejudice, belief in something that defies all evidence to the contrary, an unreasonable fear, a determination to accomplish something even if the reason for doing it has vanished.
3. Activity stories that are all about external efforts such as a trek through the jungle to obtain a lost treasure, the attempt to build the first self-aware artificial intelligence, a race across a continent in the 1800s, the effort to find a cure for a virulent new disease.
4. Psychology stores that are all about the thinking process, such as trying to come to terms with personal loss, grappling with issues of faith, overcoming addiction, growing to become a true leader, or manipulating someone.
Which of these four kinds of cores best describes what you want your story to be about and how you want it to feel?
By picking a core, you will have a central defining vision for your story that will keep it on track during development, and your completed story will come across with a powerful unified impact on your readers or audience.
This “core” concept is at the heart of our Dramatica story structuring software.