Spin a Tale, Weave a Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Melanie Anne Phillips
Creator, StoryWeaver

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Tear Your Story Apart

By necessity, authors are so focused on what they are putting into their stories that they often don’t think about what isn’t there.  Yet the early stages of story development only create a framework – a skeleton – and for a story to truly take shape, become organic, and take on a personality, many additional details will be needed.

Here’s a simple technique you can use to add depth and breadth to any story.

First, write a brief one or two sentence description of the core of your story.  For example, here’s a thumbnail description of a story my son and I for years have threatened to write:

Snow Sharks (Don’t Eat Red Snow)

Thumbnail for Snow Sharks:

The government has been developing a new breed of shark that lives in snow rather than water for use as mobile land mines in places such as Siberia or the Arctic.  A transport plane carrying them crashes in a storm high in the Rocky Mountains.

Now, we ask questions about each sentence in our thumbnail:

Questions about the first sentence:

The government has been developing a new breed of shark that lives in snow rather than water for use as mobile land mines in places such as Siberia or the Arctic.  

1. What branch of the government is involved?

2. Is this sanctioned or rogue?

3. Who is/are the scientists behind this?

4. How long has this program been going on?

5. How close are they to a final “product?”

6. Can the sharks breathe air?

7. Do they require cold (can they live in heat)?

Questions about the second sentence:

A transport plane carrying them crashes in a storm high in the Rocky Mountains.

1. What kind of plane?

2. How many sharks was it carrying?

3. Do they all survive?

4. Where was the transport taking the sharks?

5. Why couldn’t they wait until after the storm?

6. How many crew members are on board?

7. What are their jobs?

8. Do the crew members know what they are carrying?

9. Do any sharks survive?

10. If so, do the sharks kill all the survivors?

11. Is there anything in the wreckage that reveals the cargo, its nature and who is behind it?

12. Is the crew able to contact their command center before crashing?

13. Are they able to convey their location?

14. Is there a rescue beacon?

15. Does the plane carry a “black box.”

As you can see, each question is like a thread you can pull – a story thread that can open up a whole new aspect of your plot progression and character arcs.

If you were to answer each of these questions, your story would expand from that simple two-sentence thumbnail into a much richer story.

Then, you could ask questions about each sentence in the new, expanded story and grow it even larger very quickly.

If you already have a story, be it just an outline, a short synopsis, or even a complete draft, asking questions like these about key expository sentences in your manuscript can help offer alternatives to what may be a cliche story line, or to add more detail or subordinate plot lines that enrich the fabric of your overall story.

In summary, the point is that you don’t have to bang your head against a blank page trying to come up with ideas.  Just tear your story apart with as many questions as you might reasonable ask, and it will grow like baseless rumor on the internet.

Melanie Anne Phillips
Creator, StoryWeaver

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Writing Stories with a Collective Goal

Some novice writers become so wrapped up in interesting events and bits of action that they forget to have a central unifying goal that gives purpose to all the other events that take place.  This creates a plot without a core.

But determining your story’s goal can be difficult, especially if your story is character oriented, and not really about a Grand Quest.

For example, in the movie “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” all the characters are struggling with their relationships and not working toward an apparent common purpose.  There is a goal, however, and it is to find happiness in a relationship.

This type of goal is called a “Collective Goal” since it is not about trying to achieve the same thing, but the same KIND of thing.

So don’t try to force some external, singular purpose on your story if it isn’t appropriate.  But do find the common purpose in which all your characters share a critical interest.

Melanie Anne Phillips
Creator, StoryWeaver

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What Drives Your Main Character?

A story begins when the Main Character is stuck up in the highest level of justification. Nobody gets there because they are stupid or mean. They get there because their unique life experience has brought them repeated exposures to what appear to be real connections between things like, “One bad apple spoils the bunch” or “Where there’s smoke , there’s fire.”

These connections, such things as – that one needs to adopt a certain attitude to succeed or that a certain kind of person is always lazy or dishonest – these things are not necessarily universally true, but may have been universally true in the Main Character’s personal experience.

This is how we all build up our personalities. We all share the same basic psychology but how it gets “wound up” by experience determines how we see the world. Eventually we reach a point where we’ve had enough experience to arrive at a conclusion that things are always “that way” and to stop considering the issue. And that is how everything from “winning drive” to “prejudice” is formed – not by ill intents or a dull mind but by the fact that no two life experiences are the same.

The conclusions we come to, based on our justifications, free out minds to not have to reconsider every connection we see. If we had to, we’d become bogged down in endlessly reconsidering everything, and that just isn’t a good survival trait if you have to make a quick decision for fight or flight.

So, we come to certain justifications and build upon those with others until we have established a series of mental dependencies and assumptions that runs so deep we can no longer see the bottom of it. This becomes the framework of our thoughts and the template for our behavior.

But what if the situation has changed in some fundamental way so that the entire pyramid of givens we have subconsciously assembled over a period of years is built on a false assumption – the one brick at the bottom that makes all our higher level beliefs and conclusions flawed?

Simply put, we can’t see it. And therefore we cannot help but assume that the problem lies with the situation or with the people involved in that situation, and not with our own point of view.

Stories begin at that moment – when the Main Character’s long-held subconscious belief system, world view, philosophy, or template for behavior comes into conflict with the world around him or her. And the story’s structure is all about how an Influence Character repeatedly brings this conflict to the surface in one context after another until there is so much evidence that the Main Character’s view is incorrect, that he or she must make a choice in a leap of faith: Do I stick with my long-held beliefs, even though they don’t seem to be solving the problem, or do I switch to a new point of view that seems to explain things, yet has never been tried?

Circumstances in the plot force the Main Character to make a choice, or his or her deliberation might go on forever because the evidence is perfectly balanced on each side of this thematic message argument. But in the real world, we are seldom confined in such a way and tend to perpetuate our points of view in the hope that things will eventually work out without having to undo our dearly held beliefs.

And that’s why psychotherapy takes twenty years for us to arrive at the point a Main Character can reach in a two-hour movie or a two hundred-page book.

Melanie Anne Phillips
Co-creator, Dramatica

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The Master Storyteller Method

Perhaps the greatest hurdle in writing is the attempt to bring structure to a story without putting your Muse in a straight jacket.

Often structure is brought into the picture too soon, clamping your passion into an iron maiden that pierces it more deeply with every turn of a structural screw until it bleeds out entirely.

In contrast, writing with purposeless abandon creates a jellyfish of a story: an amorphous blob of subject matter with no spine, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

The Master Storyteller Method was designed to bring passion and structure together seamlessly, at the right place and the right time in the story development process.

When first starting to write, our ideas usually come fast and furious. Many of them are little snippets: a notion for a line of dialog, a location in which some action will take place, the basic concept for a character, or perhaps a plot twist. Sometimes, we begin with no more than a period of history or a topic or an ethical message that we’d like to explore in our book or screenplay, and the more we think about it, the more ideas we get.

Like the pieces to a jigsaw puzzle, each story concept is separate, and what’s more, we haven’t seen the picture on the box so we don’t even know that we’re trying to build. What we are doing at this stage is developing a Story World – basically a realm of our interests or subject matter that is all of the same basic topic or genre, but really isn’t a story yet.

As the story world becomes more complete, we begin to get a sense of the story we want to tell. In fact, a single Story World can give birth to many different stories, such as with Harry Potter, Anne Rice’s Vampire Saga, and the Star Wars Universe.

The Master Storyteller Method provides techniques developing your story’s world and discovering who’s in it, what happens to them, and what it all means.

Your story world is like a map of the material you’d like to explore. Your story will be the specific path you take across it. Think of your Story World as a beautiful unspoiled landscape, untouched by the hand of man. You are a pioneer who is the first to see that gorgeous valley and your mind envisions a glorious city to be built there that works in harmony with the environment and provides an orderly life for its inhabitants.

You would not do well to have come with a predetermined “most efficient” city plan with all the streets and locations laid out with complete disregard to the terrain – to simply be stamped onto the land. Rather, you should look at the lay of the land and determine where a road can go straight and where it must go around a hill or a stand of trees to retain and even maximize the beauty of the scenic route.

Sometimes, alas, a tunnel must be drilled through a hill as it is the only way to get to a view, or a roadbed cleared through the trees so you can see the forest for them. But more often than not, if the landscape of your story is the guiding organizing property and the structure conforms to it, it will be a far finer city experience in the end.

The Master Storyteller Method gently creates a freeform structure: a means of organizing your story world that is both free and has form.

Eventually, you will have platted out your story city so that all the most impressive landmarks are left unaltered and there is an unbroken pathway that will convey your reader from one to the next until the sum total of your purpose in telling the story can be seen an appreciated.

But before you pave those roads and commit to construction, you’ll want to be sure you have made all the best choices and that no better alternatives have emerged during your efforts to refine and revise your city plan.

What you need is an objective way of double-checking that all the traffic will move smoothly, that the unexpected twists and turns in the road have a reason to be laid out that way and that no roads come up short or run into dead ends.

The Master Storyteller Method employs an interactive spot-check for all essential structural points and a guide against which you can compare your story-plan to see where and how far you may have diverged from a consistent structure.

Keep in mind that no structure has to be perfect in a finished work. Still, you’ll want your structure to be as sound as possible without undermining the very concepts that drew you to want to write this particular story in the first place. In the end, it is a judgment call for the author as to whether drifting off structure does too much harm or is okay in any given case.

The main point is that that no one reads a book or goes to a movie to experience a perfect structure but rather to have their passions ignited. So if it comes to a choice between an exciting thing and a structural thing, go with the excitement whenever you can, but be sure never to break structure completely or your readers or audience will not be able to cross that gap and will cease to follow you on your journey.

The Master Storyteller Method is at the core of the StoryWeaver story development software I designed to help authors get from concept to completion of their novels or screenplays, step by step.

Melanie Anne Phillips
Creator, StoryWeaver

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Don’t Be Afraid of Story Structure

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Have Your Characters Write Their Own Life Stories

For your characters to be compelling, your readers will need to think of them as real people, not just dramatic functionaries or collections of traits.

To help make this happen, have each of your characters write a short one-page autobiographical piece about themselves in their own words, describing their childhoods, backgrounds, activities, interests, attitudes, relationships, pet peeves and outlooks on life.

Try to write these in the unique voice of each character and from their point of view. Don’t write about them; let them write about themselves.

This will give you the experience of what it is like to see the world through each character’s eyes, which will help you empathize with their motivations and thereby make it easier for you to write your novel in such a way that your readers can step into your characters’ shoes.

Melanie Anne Phillips
Creator, StoryWeaver

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Use Nicknames to Enrich Your Characters

Nicknames are wonderful dramatic devices because they can work with the character’s apparent physical nature or personality, work 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 back-story for the character that led to its nickname but has not yet been divulged to the readers. Consider using nicknames in addition to or instead of characters’ proper names to add flavor and familiarity to their personalities.

Browse our library of writing tips at Storymind.com and try our StoryWeaver story development software risk-free for 90 days.

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Novels Aren’t Stories

A novel does not have to be a story.  It can just be extremely free forms, such as in Virginia Woolf’s books where the entire narrative is a single subjective stream of consciousness. Other narratives e are simply explorations of a top or even collections of several stories that may or may not be intertwined.

For example, Jerzy N. Kosinski (the author of “Being There,” wrote another novel called “Steps.” It contains a series of story fragments. Sometimes you get the middle of a short story, but no middle or end. Sometimes, just the end, and sometimes just the middle.

Each fragment is wholly involving, and leaves you wanting to know the rest of the tale, but they are not to be found. In fact, there is not (that I could find) any connection among the stories, nor any reason they are in that particular order. And yet, they are so passionately told that it was one of the best reads I ever enjoyed.

The point is, don’t feel confined to restrict your novel to tell a single story, straight through, beginning to end.

Rather than think of writing a novel, think about writing a book. Consider that a book can be filled with anything you’d like to put in it.  You can take time to pontificate on your favorite subject, if you like. Unlike screenplays which must continue to move, you can stop the story and diverge into any are you like, as long as you can hold your reader’s interest.

For example, in the Stephen King novel, “The Tommy Knockers,” he meanders around a party, and allows a character to go on and on… and on… about the perils of nuclear power. Nuclear power has nothing to do with the story, and the conversation does not affect nor advance anything. King just wanted to say that, and did so in an interesting diatribe.

So feel free to break any form you have ever heard must be followed. The most liberated of all written media is the novel, and you can literally – do whatever you want.

Find your Muse with our

StoryWeaver Story Development Software

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Be Your Own Critic Without Being Critical

Be your own critic without being critical

Here’s how: First write a single descriptive sentence.

Now look at that sentence not as an author, but as a reader or critic.  You can see what’s there, but what’s not there?

To find out, ask some questions about what hasn’t been conveyed (yet).

For example, I write, “It was dawn in the small western town.”

Then I stand back and ask:

1. What time of year was it?

2. What state?

3. Is it a ghost town?

4. How many people live there?

5. Is everything all right in the town?

6. What year is it?

These are just the questions that come to my mind – things I’d like to know more about.  Your questions would likely be quite different and for the purposes of this example, you may want to jot down a few additional questions of your own.

Next, let your Muse come up with as many answers for each question as possible.

Example:

For question 6, What year is it?, my answers might be:

A. 1885

B. Present Day

C. 2050

D. After the apocalypse.

Now go back to answering questions, but this time, ask questions about each of your answers to the original question.

Example:

For the original question, What year is it?, one of our answers was D. After the Apocalypse.

So now ask:

1. What kind of apocalypse?

2. How many people died in the Apocalypse?

3. How long ago was the disaster, and so on.

Now let’s expand on this technique.  Suppose you write a one-sentence description of your story.  Then, by alternating between critical analysis and creative Musings, you will quickly work out details about your story’s world, who’s in it, what happens to them and what it all means.

But you can also use this technique at any point in the story development process.  Pick any sentence from one that describes your plot to one that speaks to an attribute of one of your characters.  Apply the technique and you will expand that area of your story quickly and easily into some fascinating new material.

In the end, you may very well turn out to be your own best critic.

Melanie Anne Phillips
Creator, StoryWeaver

This technique is at the heart of my
Storyeaver Story Development SoftWare

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