StoryWeaver and the Author’s Journey

By Melanie Anne Phillips

Introduction to StoryWeaver

StoryWeaver is a new method of story development with a revolutionary approach.  Rather that focusing on what stories need to be complete, it focuses on what authors need to complete stories.

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

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

StoryWeaver sees four primary stages in the author’s journey:

1. Inspiration

2. Development

3. Exposition

4. Storytelling.

Here’s a brief description of each:

Stage One: Inspiration

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

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

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

Stage Two:  Development

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

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

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

Stage Three: Exposition

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

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

Stage Four: Storytelling

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

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

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

In summary

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

In our next installment, we’ll look more deeply into StoryWeaver’s fist stage, Inspiration, to learn about new techniques for coming up with initial ideas for your plot, characters, theme and genre.

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Character Development Tricks!

By Melanie Anne Phillips

Although it is possible to write without the use of characters, it is not easy. Characters represent our drives, our essential human qualities. So a story without characters would be a story that did not describe or explore anything that might be considered a motivation. For most writers, such a story would not provide the opportunity to completely fulfill their own motivations for writing.

For example, we might consider the following poem:

Rain, rain, go away.

Come again another day.

Are there characters in this short verse? Is the rain a character?

To some readers the poem might be a simple invocation for the rain to leave. To other readers, the rain may seem to be stubborn, thoughtless, or inconsiderate. Of course we would need to read more to know for certain.

Suppose we wrote the sentence, “The rain danced on the sidewalk in celebration of being reunited with the earth.”

Now we are definitely assigning human qualities to the rain. Without doubt, the rain has become a character. Characters do not have to be people; they can also be places or things. In fact, anything that can be imbued with motivation can be a character.

So, a fantasy story might incorporate a talking book. An action story might employ a killer wolverine. And a horror story might conjure up the vengeful smoke from a log that was cut from a sentient tree and burned in a fireplace.

When we come to a story we either already have some ideas for a character or characters we would like to use, or we will likely soon find the need for some. But how can we come up with these characters, or how can we develop the rough characters we already have?

Coming up with characters is as simple as looking to our subject matter and asking ourselves who might be expected to be involved. But that only creates the expected characters – predictable and uninteresting. Making these characters intriguing, unusual, and memorable is a different task altogether. But first things first, let us look to our subject matter and see what characters suggest themselves. (If you like, try this with you own story as we go.)

Example:

Suppose all we know about our story is that we want to write an adventure about some jungle ruins and a curse. What characters immediately suggest themselves?

Jungle Guide, Head Porter, Archeologist, Bush Pilot, Treasure Hunter

What other characters might seem consistent with the subject?

Missionary, Native Shaman, Local Military Governor, Rebel Leader, Mercenary

How about other characters that would not seem overly out of place?

Night Club Singer, Tourist, Plantation Owner

And perhaps some less likely characters?

Performers in a Traveling Circus (Trapeze Artist, Juggler, Acrobat, Clown)

We could, of course, go on and on. The point is, we can come up with a whole population of characters just by picking the vocations of those we might expect or at least accept as not inconsistent with the subject matter. Now these characters might seem quite ordinary at first glance, but that is only because we know nothing about them. I promised you a trick to use that would make ordinary characters intriguing, and now is the time to try it.

Of course, we probably don’t need that many characters in our story, so for this example let’s pick only one character from each of the four groups above: Bush Pilot, Mercenary, Night Club Singer, Clown.

First we’ll assign a gender to each. Let’s have two male and two female characters. Well pick the Bush Pilot and the Mercenary as male and the Night Club Singer and the Clown as female.

Now, picture these characters in your mind: a male Bush Pilot, a male Mercenary, a female Night Club Singer, and a female Clown. Since we all have our own life experiences and expectations, you should be able to visualize each character in your mind in at least some initial ways.

The Bush Pilot might be scruffy, the Mercenary bare-armed and muscular. The Night Club Singer well worn but done up glamorously, and the Clown a mousy thing.

Now that we have these typical images of these typical characters in our minds, let’s shake things up a bit to make them less ordinary. We’ll make the Bush Pilot and the Mercenary female and the Night Club Singer and Clown male.

What does this do to our mental images? How does it change how we feel about these characters? The Bush Pilot could still be scruffy, but a scruffy woman looks a lot different than a scruffy man. Or is she scruffy? Perhaps she is quite prim in contrast to the land in which she practices her profession. Since female bush pilots are more rare, we might begin to ask ourselves how she came to have this job. And, of course, this would start to develop her back-story.

How about the female Mercenary? Still muscular, or more the brainy type? What’s her back story? The Night Club Singer might be something of a lounge lizard type in a polyester leisure suit. And the male Clown could be sad like Emit Kelly, sleazy like Crusty the Clown, or evil like Pennywise the Clown in Stephen King’s “It.”

The key to this trick is that our own preconceptions add far more material to our mental images than the actual information we are given – so far only vocation and gender.

Due to this subconscious initiative, our characters are starting to get a little more intriguing, just by adding and mixing genders. What happens if we throw another variable into the mix, say, age? Let’s pick four ages arbitrarily: 35, 53, 82, and 7. Now let’s assign them to the characters.

We have a female Bush Pilot (35), a female Mercenary (53), a male Night Club Singer (82), and a male Clown (7). How does the addition of age change your mental images?

What if we mix it up again? Let’s make the Bush Pilot 7 years old, the Mercenary 82, the Night Club Singer 53, and the Clown 35. What do you picture now?

It would be hard for a writer not to find something interesting to say about a seven-year-old female Bush Pilot or an eighty-two year old female Mercenary.

What we’ve just discovered is that the best way to break out of your own mind and its cliché creations is to simply mix and match a few attributes. Suddenly your characters take on a life of their own and suggest all kinds of interesting back-stories, attitudes, and mannerisms.

Now consider that we have only been playing with three attributes. In fact, there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of attributes from which we might select. These might include educational level, race, disabilities, exceptional abilities, special skills, hobbies, religious affiliation, family ties, prejudices, unusual eating habits, sexual preference, and on and on. And each of these can be initially assigned in typical fashion, then mixed and matched. Using this simple technique, anyone can create truly intriguing and memorable characters.

Perhaps the most interesting thing in all of this is that we have become so wrapped up in these fascinating people that we have completely forgotten about structure! In fact, we don’t even know who is the Hero, Protagonist, or Main Character!

Many authors come to a story realizing they need some sort of central character and then try to decide what kind or person he or she should be from scratch. But it is far easier to first build a cast of characters that really excite you (as we did above) and then ask yourself which one you would like to be the central character.

So, imagine…. What would this story be like if we chose the seven-year-old female Bush Pilot as the Hero. How about the eighty-two year old female Mercenary? Can you picture the 53-year-old male Night Club Singer as Hero, or the thirty-five year old male Clown?

And how would things change depending upon who we pick as the Villain or Antagonist? In fact, by choosing one of these characters as the Hero and another as Villain it will begin to suggest what might happen in the plot, just as picking the subject matter suggested our initial characters. Writer’s block never has to happen. Not when you are armed with this technique to spur your passions.

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Only One Main Character in a Story

By Melanie Anne Phillips

There’s only one main character in a story.  Why?  Because a story is about the group experience of trying to achieve a goal.  When people come together around a common issue in the real world, they quickly self-organize so that one becomes the Voice of Reason and another the Resident Skeptic, for example.

In essence, each “character” in a group endeavor takes as his job one of the major attributes we all have within our own minds.  In this way, the group benefits from having specialists to look into each point of view exclusively, which provides greater insight to the group than if we were all acting as individuals, each trying to see the problem from all angles at once, as we do with personal problems.

And so, the group takes on the nature of a group mind in which our primary attributes are represented by people.  In fiction, this group mind is called a Story Mind, and each of the people are the archetypes.  This forms the basis of narrative structure.

But who is the main character among all of these?  In real life, one of the archetypes will emerge as the leader who represents the identity of the group, such as a the CEO of a company, the team leader in sports, or the President of the United States.

Those who are part of the group assume the mantle of that identity, and the leader is the personification of the group mind’s sense of itself.  In fiction, that character is the main character, for it is through his or her perspective that the readers or audience experience the story in the first person.

This main character may or may not be the protagonist.  The protagonist is the archetype who represents our initiative – the drive to affect change.  Every group mind has one.  But that person is not always the leader.  The leader is the spirit of the group, the protagonist may be his principal operative.

And so it is in fiction.  Any of the archetypes might be the leader.  So that leader might be the antagonist, for example, trying to maintain the status quo and prevent change.  Or it might be the reason archetype who insists that all decisions are based on logic.

Still, though the leader may be any archetype, there will only be one avatar for the group’s sense of self, one main character in the story mind.  For, just as in our own individual minds, we think therefore we are.  There is only one voice inside that is our identity, our sense of self, who we are.  (Unless, of course, we are mentally ill, just as a group mind might be dysfunctional in the real world if it has more than one identity – more than one voice that speaks for the group or tries to define the feel and essence of the group.

So, in your own stories, be sure you only have one main character.  But if you want to write about other characters in your story and see how it looks through their eyes, create a sub-story around that character that doesn’t involve the others.  Then, you can populate it with people such as his family or his religious group, and his personal story will allow you to stand in his shoes in that regard.

Be certain, however, that you do do not confuse your readers or audience by writing your sub story in such a way that this sub main character is mistaken for the overall main character, as this would create a dysfunctional story.

Still, it is important to develop the individual natures of every character so the readers or audience can identify with them more easily as being like real people.  And this prevents your story from being about just one person surrounded by an army of automatons.

After all, each of us is the main character in our own personal narrative.

Learn more about story structure at

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Narrative for Movies and Television

I’ve been invited to present a one-day seminar to the Director’s Guild of Canada in Vancouver, BC on April 2. The topic is NARRATIVE FOR MOVIES AND TELEVISION. Registration is currently open only to DGC members, and seating is limited, but if any space is left they will open registration to the public. For information contact the Director’s Guild of Canada at info@dgcbc.com

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Our New Writing Tips Page – Beginner Through Advanced!

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Genre – Act by Act

By Melanie Anne Phillips

Many writers have a misconception that genre is something you “write in” – like a box. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Genre is the overall personality of a story, created through structural and storytelling elements and approaches.

The character of your story itself isn’t simply set at the beginning and then continued through the conclusion. Rather, the elements of genre are sprinkled into the story, establishing an initial mood, and then developing it over the course of the entire journey.

Genre in Act One

Your story’s genre is its overall personality. As with the people that you meet, first impressions are very important. In act one, you introduce your story to your reader/audience. The selection of elements you choose to initially employ will set the mood for all that follows. They can also be misleading, and you can use this to your advantage.

You may be working with a standard genre, or trying something new. But it often helps involve your reader/audience if you start with the familiar. In this way, those experiencing your story are eased out of the real world and into the one you have constructed. So, in the first act, you many want to establish a few touch points the reader/audience can hang its hat on.

As we get to know people a little better, our initial impression of the “type” of person they are begins to slowly alter, making them a little more of an individual and a little less of a stereotype. To this end, as the first act progresses, you may want to hint at a few attributes or elements of your story’s personality that begin to drift from the norm.

By the end of the first act, you should have dropped enough elements to give your story a general personality type and also to indicate that a deeper personality waits to be revealed.

As a side note, this deeper personality may in fact be the true personality of your story, hidden behind the first impressions.

Genre in Act Two

In the second act, your story’s genre personality develops more specific traits or elements that shift it completely out of the realm of a broad personality type and into the realm of the individual. Your reader/audience comes to expect certain things from your story, both in the elements and in the style with which they are presented.

If the first impression of your story as developed in act one is a true representation of the underpinnings of your story’s personality, then act two adds details and richness to the overall feel over the story. But if the first impression is a deception, hiding beneath it a different story personality, then act two brings elements to the surface that reveal the basic nature of its true personality.

Genre in Act Three

It is the third act where you will either reveal the final details that make your story’s personality unique as an individual, or will reveal the full extent of its true personality that was masked behind the first impressions of the first act, and hinted at in the second.

Either way, by the end of the third act you want your reader/audience to feel as if the story is an old friend or an old enemy – a person they understand as to who it is by nature, and what it is capable of.

Genre Conclusion

If you’ve ever seen the end of a science fiction movie where the world is saved, the words “The End” appear, and then a question mark appears, you have experienced a last-minute change in the personality of a story’s genre.

In the conclusion, you can either re-affirm the personality you have so far revealed, alter it at the last moment, or hint that it may be altered. For example, in the original movie “Alien,” there are several red herrings in the end of act three that alternately make it look as if Ripley or the Alien will ultimately triumph. In the conclusion of Alien, the Alien has been apparently vanquished, and Ripley puts herself in suspended animation for the long return home. But the music, which has been written to initially convey a sense that danger is over suddenly takes a subtle turn toward the minor chords and holds them, making us feel that perhaps a hidden danger still lurks. Finally, the music returns to a sustained major chord as the ship disappears in the distance, confirming that indeed, the danger has past.

Keep in mind that your reader/audience will need to say goodbye to the story they have come to know. Just as they needed to be introduced to the story’s personality in act one and drawn out of the real world into the fictional one, now they need to be disentangled from the story’s personality and eased back into the real world.

Just as one wraps up a visit with a friend in a gradual withdrawal, so too you must let your reader/audience down gently, always considering that the last moments your reader/audience spends with your story will leave a final impression even more important than the first impression.

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Archetypes vs. Stereotypes

By Melanie Anne Phillips

Archetypes, by definition, are characters defined by their plot function, such as the protagonist, who is trying to achieve a goal, and the antagonist who is trying to stop him. All of the archetypes have a counterpart whose approaches are opposite one another. For example, there is a Reason character who tries to solve plot problem with logic, while the Emotion archetype hopes to succeed through passion.

Stereotypes, on the other hand, are collections of personality traits, such as a Nerd or a Bully. So you can think of archetypes as the underlying psychology of a character, and stereotypes are the personalities that are built on top of that psychology.

For example, a protagonist could be a bully or a nerd. And so could an antagonist or a reason archetype or an emotional archetype. It is the archetypal function that determines what a character will do in the plot and the stereotype personality that determine how they will act while they do it.

In this way, composite characters reflect everyone we encounter in real life. We identify them emotionally by their personalities, and classify them logically by the roles they play.

Stereotypes allow us to connect with fictional characters because, quite literally, we’ve seen that type before. Archetypes allow us to understand where these characters are coming from – what their motivations are, and what they are trying to achieve.

Archetypes exist because each represents a facet of our own minds, turned into a character, so we can learn what is the best way to go about solving a problem in our own lives.

By observing how each archetype fares in the effort to resolve the story’s issues (which extend far beyond simply achieving a goal), we learn the author’s message about how to achieve satisfaction and fulfillment for ourselves.

Learn more about archetypes and stereotypes in this video clip:

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