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May 25, 2008

essential makings of a story

by sven at 3:30 pm

I'm trying to integrate both what I've learned from Barnaby King's clown classes and from the book "Techniques of the Selling Writer," by Dwight Swain. I want to understand how to make stories.

I've come across a number of assertions from fiction coaches that I disagree with. Joseph Campbell's "Hero's Journey" and John Truby's "22 steps" both feel like lists of possible plot points to me; that's not the essence of story. Another author I'm reading puts characterization on a pedestal; that also feels off-center.

My conviction (shared by King, Swain, and Disney animator Ollie Johnston) is that emotion is the core of story. For now, I'm going to defer going into that concept in any detail. BUT, going with it as my premise, I've just this morning formulated my own recipe for story-making...

(I don't doubt that I'll recant it soon enough -- but even just beginning to develop my own theory of Story is exciting, so I want to get this down.)


Proposal: To create a story, you just need four things. There are volumes to be written about how to juggle them with other important factors... But I think if you start with these basic ingredients, your recipe will at least produce something edible.

1. Two emotions
Come up with two emotions. One goes at the beginning of the story, the other at the end. In the middle, you crescendo the first emotion until it breaks, and you switch over to the second.

"Happy" and "sad" are too blunt. You have to come up with emotions that are more nuanced. The old truism, "write about what you know," shouldn't preclude writing about dragons and spaceships -- but in the case of emotions, I think you really do need to find something in your own life, which you've actually experienced. The work of capturing the two emotions is ideally a physical process, where you're up and moving around, reliving a particular moment in your life, and re-experiencing/imagining anew sensations in your body.

2. An eccentric
Stories are wish-fulfillment in a sense. At times, all of us wish that one of our personality traits could be taken to an extreme. Let a character come to you that can really indulge in the emotions you've picked; who for one reason or another is extreme in some dimension of their being.

The point of your performance is to connect with the audience: to take an emotion and wear it on your outside, which they can then experience vicariously. Let your character (your mask) come to you intuitively. And if you grow dissatisfied, discard them. You are painting with a palette of emotions -- lots of different characters could embody what it is that you want to present to the audience.

3. A spectacle
There has to be at least one thing that happens during the story that is an amazing sight. A planet-killer that destroys Alderaan. Kong breaking through the gates. A marching band parading through a hospital. One moment that is visually compelling, and will stick in the audience's inner eye.

4. A disaster
Elongated stories have lots of disasters; structurally, they're a basic building block of fiction. For a short, maybe you only have one -- but you have to have at least one. What's the worst thing that you can do to your character? What's their darkest moment? For a movie or a novel, come up with a whole list of ways to torture your characters -- then put them in ascending order of severity. Crash Luke's X-wing on Dagoba. Make it further sink into the swamp. Cut off his hand...


And that's it: four essentials. If you can come up with those four things, then most of the rest of the work of creating a story is just coming up with segues. If you know where you're starting, where you're ending, and a few points you want to hit along the way, then you probably have enough to puzzle out what should go in the gaps.

The test of whether or not this proposal works will be to see whether or not it actually starts me thinking up new story ideas. It's sort of a mad-lib approach to creating fiction...

Once upon a time [emotion A] was felt by [eccentric individual]. In his/her world [disaster] is going to happen... And as the story progresses, there's going to be this event, [spectacle], which is going to amaze you. Following the crescendo of [feeling A], pushed on by [disaster] and [spectacle], the emotion breaks and [eccentric individual], transformed, feels [emotion B].

posted by sven | May 25, 2008 3:30 PM | categories: writing