Writing Advice: Premise (The Anatomy of Story, Chapter 2)

There are many ways to start the writing process. Some writers prefer to do it by breaking the story in its seven primary steps–to be explored in Chapter 3. Most begin with the shortest expression of the story as a whole, the premise line.

The premise is your story stated in one sentence. As soon as you decide to pursue one idea and codify it within your premise, you’re locked into it — so you better be happy and certain with your choice.

What you choose to write about is far more important than any decision you make about how to write it.

Premise is the one decision on which every other decision you make during the writing process is based. If your premise is weak, there is nothing you can do to save the story.

Premise is a classical example of the dangers of a little knowledge, its inherent structural weakness is found in the fact that it offers you only two-three scene; the scenes just before and after the twist that makes your premise unique. A novel’s premise may have double-triple the number of scenes that the premise of a movie.

You have to remain flexible and open to all possibilities. This is where using an organic, creative method as guide is most important.

Developing your premise

Step 1: Write Something that may Change Your Life

If a story is that important to you, it may be that important to a lot of people in your audience. When you’re done, no matter what else, you’ve changed your life.

To follow this particular step, you need to know yourself. For that, you need to explore yourself. Get some data on who you are, via these two exercises:

  • First, write down a wishlist of all the things you’d like to see in a book. That’s what you’re passionately interested in, and what entertains you. You might jut down imagined characters, cool plot twists, great lines of dialogue, themes you want to explore or care about. Write it all down without worry for organization or any considerations.
  • The second exercise is to write a premise list. Write as many premises as you want, as long as they’re one sentence each. This’ll force you to be clear about each idea. It also allows you to see all your premises together, in one place.

After that, a look at the key patterns will start to emerge about what you love. It’s your vision in its rawest form. The exercises are designed to open you up and to ingetrate what is deep within you already.

Step 2: Look for what is possible

Explore your options. The Intent here is to brainstorm the many different paths the idea can take and then to choose the best one. Ask yourself “What if…?” so as to define what’s allowed in the story world, and what isn’t. Let your mind go free, and don’t censor or judge yourself. No idea is “stupid,” those often lead to creative breakthrough.

Step 3: Identify the Story Challenges and Problems

There’ll be particular problems embedded in the story idea, and you can’t escape them. You want to confront these, and solve them if you wish to execute your story well. Most writers identify the inherent problems of their stories too late (if at all). The trick is learning to spot the big ones right at the premise line. Of course, you won’t be able to diagnose every problem this soon in the process.

Step 4: Find the Designing Principle:

Problems and promises known, you now have to come up with an overall strategy for how you will tell your story. The overall story strategy, stated in one line, is the designing principle of your story.

The designing principle helps you extend the premise into a deep structure.

The designing principle is what organizes the story as a whole.

It is the internal logic of the story, what makes the parts hang together organically so that the story becomes greater than the sum of its parts. It is what makes the story original. It’s the seed of the story, in short. It tracks the fundamental process that will unfold over the course of the story.

Most stories don’t have a designing principle; it’s already abstract, the deeper process going on in the story, told in an original way.

Designing principle= Story process + original execution

It’s the “synthesizing idea,” the “shaping cause” of the story.

Be diligent in discovering this principle, and enver take your eye off it during the long writing process. Don’t do as most writers do, by picking a genre and imposing it on the premise, forcing the story to go through events associated with the genre in question; draw the designing principle out of the one-line premise.

Step 5: Determine your Best Character in the Idea.

Always tell a story about your best character.

The best character is the most fascinating and challenging character, always.

Step 6: Get a sense of the Central Conflict

Ask yourself: “Who fights whom over what?” and answer the question over one succinct line. All conflict will boil down to this one issues, codified in your answer.

Step 7: Get a sense of the single Cause-and-effect Pathway

A good organic story has a single cause-and-effect pathway; this is the spine of the story and without it, the story will fall apart.

The trick to discovering this it ask yourself: “What’s my character’s basic action?” One action that your hero takes is more important than any other, and unifies every other action the hero takes, and that’s the cause-and-effect path.

Step 8: Determine your Hero’s Possible Character Change

That’s the second most important thing to gleam from your premise line: the fundamental character change of your hero. Character change is what your hero experiences by going through his struggle.

WxA=C ( Weaknesses x Action = Change )

The basic action should be the one action best able to force the character to deal with his weakness and change.

That’s the basic sequence of the human growth – what you, the writer, must express above everything else.

Write down a number of possible options for the hero’s weaknesses and change.

Remember that premise work is extremely tentative, especially concerning character change.

Step 9: Figure out the Hero’s possible Moral choice

The main theme of a story is often crystalized by a moral choice the hero must make, typically near the end of the story. Theme is your view of the proper way to act in the world. It is your moral vision, and it is one of the main reasons you are writing  your story.

Theme is best expressed through the structure of the story, the moral argument where you make a case for how to live, not through philosophical argument but through the actions of characters going after a goal.

To have a true choice, your hero must either select one of two positive outcomes or, on some rare occasions, avoid one of two negative outcomes.

Step 10: Gauge the Audience Appeal

Be ruthless in answering this question of commercial appeal. Don’t fall into the either-or trap of believing that you can either write about what matters to you or what sells. Always try to write something you care about, and also think will appeal to an audience.

Coming Next: Chapter 3 – The seven Key Steps of Story Structure

Magnus Commentary: Well, wasn’t that one hell of an interesting read? While I am far from subscribing to John Truby’s idea that his is the best way of going about writing, this is certainly a fascinating look at a methodology that I’m more than willing to try.

There is also a lengthy writing exercise which calls upon us, the readers of said novel, to attempt to follow these ten steps. It’s in the book, and you should check it out; I’m currently attempting it with an idea for a novel that’s been stuck in my head for some time now, and I’ll be happy to report my progress to anyone who’s interested. Comment below!

PS I decided to go without my own thoughts on the premise, as I’m still playing around with the methodology.

Writing Advice: The Anatomy of Story, Chapter 1

I’ve been thinking about today’s blog post–quite a bit, in fact. I decided that instead of offering you some of my own hard-earned wisdom(insane laughter), I would take you on my exploration of John Truby’s well-regarded, well-known book, “The Anatomy of Story.” 

The plan is simple: Make a post about each chapter (sometimes the posts about a chapter might be more than one, depending on how complex the chapter is).  Within these posts I will attempt to extract the most important advice, guidelines, techniques and so on by retelling and rephrasing the most important parts, those that jump at me from the pages of this book; I will occasionally offer my own commentary and views, no doubt a great deal less worthwhile than Mr. Truby’s, but none the less, mine. It is *my* name on the blog, after all…ain’t that right, lads’n’lasses?

I hope that this little adventure will be useful and worthwhile not only to me, but to you as well, dear reader. So let’s begin!

CHAPTER 1: Story Space, Story Time

It’s no easy feat, creating a great story. Showing the how and why of human life — perhaps the end goal of storytelling, all things considered — is a monumental job.

There are numerous obstacles in your way.  Take common terminology: what help are terms like “rising action,” “climax,” “progressive complication” and so on, when we get down to the nitty-gritty of practice? Those terms, so theoretically burdened and broad, are meaningless and lack practical value for storytellers.

Just so with the ‘three-act theory,’ which, while a lot easier to use in practice, is a mechanical view on story, hopelessly simplistic and almost inevitably leading to episodic storytelling.

Great stories are organic – living, breathing organisms that develop, in a way eerily similar to the human body.

We could define a story as: “A speaker tells a listener what someone did to get what he wanted, and why.

Three distinct elements can be observed: the story itself, the speaker (or storyteller), and the the listener, or audience.

Good storytelling lets the audience relive events in the present so they can understand the forces, choices and emotions that led the character to do what they did. Stories are really giving the audience emotional knowledge–what we can easily dub as wisdom–in a playful and endearing way. (Magnus’ commentary: I thought that was a really nice view and explanation on stories.)

The storyteller constructs a sort of puzzle, to be figured out by the listeners. Two major elements go into the construction of this puzzle:

  1. The author presents the audience with information about a made-up character; and
  2. He then withholds the certain information–which is crucial to the storyteller’s make-believe, by forcing the audience to figure out who the character is, what his motivations are. That’s what draws the audience to the story; without it, we no longer have an audience, and the story stops.

THE STORY

All forms are a form of communication that expresses the dramatic code.

But what is the dramatic code? It is, in simple terms, an artistic description of how a person can grow and evolve. Let’s explore this concept further:

  • Change is fueled by desire. (“I want, therefore I am.”)
  • A story tracks what a person wants, what he’ll do to get it, and what costs he’ll have to pay along the way.
  • Characters who go after their desires are forced to struggle; it is that struggle that effects change upon a character.

The ultimate goal of the dramatic code is to present a change in a character, or to illustrate why change didn’t occur. The different forms of storytelling frame human change in differing ways, of course.

The dramatic code expresses the idea that human beings can become a better version of themselves, psychologically or morally. The story body is made of many parts: characters, plot, revelations, the story world, the moral argument, the symbol web, the scene weave and symphonic dialogue.

Theme is the brain of the story, characters–the heart, story structures are the skeleton, and so forth. Each subsystem of the story consists of a web of elements that help define and differentiate the other elements.

STORY MOVEMENT

Nature uses a few basic patterns to connect elements in a sequence. Storytellers use these same patterns, individually and in combination, to connect story events over time. Let’s see which those are:

  • Linear Story: Tracks a single main character, from beginning to end.
  • Meandering Story: Follows a winding path without apparent direction.
  • Spiral story: The character keeps returning to a single event or memory, and explores it at progressively deeper levels.
  • Branching is a system of paths that extend from a few central points by splitting and adding smaller and smaller parts.
  • Explosive Story: Has multiple paths that extend simultaneously. These stories also put more emphasis on exploring the story world, showing the connections between the various elements there and how everyone fits, or doesn’t fit, within the whole.

WRITING YOUR STORY

What writing process will give you the best chance of creating a great story?

Most writers use an approach that is external, mechanical, piecemeal and generic. We will work, instead, towards a writing process that may be described as internal, organic, interconnected, and original. It’s no easy process.

You’ll construct your story from the inside out, meaning that:

  1. You must make the story personal and unique to you;
  2. You must find and develop what’s original within your story idea.

With each chapter, your story will grow and become more detailed, with each part connected to every other part.

Next Up: Chapter 2: Premise

Things are heating up!

 

 

Writing Advice: Showing and Telling

Early on, when I first started sharing my writing, a number of people gave me the following advice: Show, don’t tell.

That’s good advice, I thought; it helped me in identifying a particular weakness my writing had at the time. The more I thought about it, the more I realised that this particular piece of advice should have a caveat: Show, don’t tell…much.

Anything good I’ve read has both Telling and Showing. To only Show, or only Tell will inevitably end up as…well, not good! The point is, if you’ve got something that you’re afraid is too Tell-ish, perhaps you should leave it that way…at least until you get a clear look at your work.

Let’s unpack the two.

Showing is a way of describing what’s happening via the feelings that an event causes in the character that lives through it. Instead of informing, “She was afraid,” you try and show the fear; “The blood froze in her veins,” is one way to Show fear, and an unmistakable one at that. It doesn’t literally happen– most of the time, at least– but it gets the exact sentiment across. When you’re Showing, you will find yourself always looking for the right verb, since verbs create vividness in the mind of the reader better than most of the tools in your kit.

Telling is describing things as if you see those happening to someone else. It’s that part of your mind that’s narrating experiences in a calm, disaffectionate voice even as the rest of you is too busy with the heat of the moment, drowned in waves upon waves of emotion.

The ultimate reason for using both Showing and Telling is simple, really–the way we go through life is not only through us experiencing it, but through our awareness of the experience, as well. Showing and Telling aren’t opposites — they’re the end of the spectrum. Your works shouldn’t suffer from a complete lack of one and a drought of the other; explore the spectrum.

Enjoy the freedom that writing grants you and follow your vision!

PS If you’d like, you can try a fancy little exercise! Write a short scene, by only Telling. Rewrite it by Showing, and then — rewrite it a final time, this time by using both Telling and Showing!

Writing Advice: Memorable Characters

How do we create memorable characters?

Well, you’d need a dozen eggs, a bit of vanilla and seventeen cups of sugar to make your average Mary Sue; or you could whip yourself good old-fashioned one-dimensional characters by doing the same thing you’d do to get stale bread — don’t spend any time cooking them up in the oven; just make sure they’re one-note ponies, one and all.

These are not examples of memorable characters? Alright, alright, I’ll try harder!

What the above-mentioned is example of traps that writers fall in all the time. Perfect characters and one-note characters are both leading causes of aneurisms among enthusiast readers. By their very nature, these archetypes are dull; not in terms of ‘good’ dull–characters you’re writing with the intention of bringing something to your story by virtue of this attribute–but the kind of dull that makes your story just that much more unreadable.

You don’t want that.

You want your characters three-dimensional and unique. You want them to have flaws and strengths, to be internally consistent and not alien to the world you’re building around them.

Sounds simple enough, right?

…Perhaps I should dig into these points, just to be safe.

Three-dimensional characters require hard work and a lot of time invested in them. A good place you could start off with is by modeling your character after a real person you know; it’s not a method I consciously use, but I’ve heard that some people go with it, and are pretty happy with how it turns out.

I like to use chunks of small details as building blocks. I dislike bombarding my readers with every small quirk a character they’ve just met has; rather, it’s important to remember that just as we don’t notice everything there is to notice about a person the first time we meet them, neither do our protagonists, point-of-view characters and so on.

Unless you’re writing Sherlock Holmes. If that is the case, however, let me pose a question…do you really want to be writing Sherlock Holmes?

Don’t forget that your characters have lived lives before they appeared on page 423 of your novel. Draw from their past; you don’t have to write detailed backgrounds of every single character to appear in your book, but it’s good to have an idea of where they’re coming from. Sketch that with a few quick sentences over lunch break or on your commute from work or university; or if you’re too lazy (and you really shouldn’t be), think about it.

Finally, if all else fails, you can always go back to my Writing advice about Villains, and read all about how they act as foil to your protagonists, allowing all parties to learn more about where they stand in terms of morality, ethics, decency and everything else!

 

 

 

Writing Advice: World-Building

World-building is a tricky subject. Too much of it, and it ends up clogging the story. Too little, and

the setting ends up feeling too far removed from reality. There are many different aspects of world-building we can touch upon, but the most important thing you have to remember is…

If you like it and it’s part of our world, don’t be afraid to use it!

Too many writers forget that it’s alright to use realistic elements to their worlds; those can only add to your writing, enhance it. I’m as much of a sucker for magic, fantasy religions and amazing storytelling as you’ll ever find; I absolutely love to see authors add real-world elements to their works. Once you do that, you can then work to subvert that real-world aspect in order to show, rather than tell, how magic works.

Imagine for me, if you will, a world in which wizards with telekinetic abilities are fairly common. How would that affect a maritime nation’s…docking bays, for example? Would shipmasters pay a dozen men to load and unload their expensive, fragile cargo, or would they prefer to pay the local mage, who works faster and more efficiently?

Would lantern lighters be used in big cities where pyromancy wizards could snap their fingers to do an otherwise lengthy, tedious job? How about agriculture; how would the entire process of growing and harvesting food change if your world had magics that could be used to cultivate and grow plants at a much greater rate?

We can see positives to these examples, to be sure, but what’re the negatives? Could you pinpoint them for me?

Thinking about the socio-economic consequences of a given type of magical or religious system has on the world ensures that you add a complex layer to your fiction. It takes hard work, but the added level of realism makes up for it.

I’ve mentioned religion a few times now, and I feel obliged to expand on that particular topic. Religions in fantasy are often based on Greek and Norse mythology; borrowing real world religions can work very well, as seen in Dan Simmons’ Hyperion Cantos– in those books, Catholic Christianity is fascinating to read about.

Two of the central characters of Hyperion are Catholic priests–men who have put their faith in (what is at this point) a crumbling, dying religion. It’s understandable why we find the church in such a state of disrepair; seven centuries later, Christ has yet to rise again. In the face of more attractive religions such as Zen Christianity, Catholicism simply wanes.

Later, because of events I won’t spoil, Catholicism does reemerge as the dominant religion; but this time, as a much more sinister organization, akin to the Catholic Church that was behind the Inquisition; thus, past and future intertwine.

Again, it’s important to build on how exactly the religions you borrow from work differently in your world. A good point to start from is…are they based on real events, or not? If they are, how accurately do they represent historical events? How much of what you know about the religion in question is common knowledge?

Question like these will help you create a solid foundation on which to build on!

The topic of world-building is hardly exhausted with this short discussion; next week, however, I will try and tackle exposition, and how not to bore your readers to death. See you next week!

 

Writing Advice: Essays

One thing I set out to do with this blog–that I have yet to do–is write a series of long-form essays about topics that intrigue me. Perhaps I’ve done a bit of that with my ‘Saturday Night Gaming’ series, but I’ve decided that now would be a good time to take a long look at what you–and I–should do before we venture onto writing a good and proper essay.

Just today, I read a wonderful essay at the back of Neuromancer, written by a fellow writer and a friend of the book’s author, William Gibson.  What struck me was the excitement, the pure joy that these words radiated; so well were they crafted that I found myself nearly seduced to scroll back to the beginning of the book, and take an unforgettable journey into cyberspace all over again.

Excitement, then, is the most important building block, the one to use as foundation for your essays. When you’re excited about a given topic, it shows; ideas come more easily, they seamlessly flow on the page (or on the text processor), and most importantly, excitement translates through language with ridiculous ease!

Writing essays is about your views; so make sure to crystalize those. Before writing a review, essay, or blog post, I take a pen and paper and scribble the clearest points in my mind. Then, while I’m writing, I will often glance towards that piece of paper, and make sure that I’m presenting my core arguments in a clear, understandable way. Clarity is of such enormous importance to any piece of writing and essays are no different.

And how about the importance of research? Might be a bore when you’re writing a book, but if you’re looking for factual information to help strengthen your essay, it really shouldn’t be a problem. I take a long time to read up on studios, developers and development processes of the different games I write/make videos about, and it’s always far more entertaining than frustrating. Finding information about the things you love is downright inspirational, in fact–and no surprise there!

Having cold, hard facts on your side will also help with your confidence; all you have to do, then, is present them well and proper!

Yet another good idea is to use pictures or any other kind of visual media to help accentuate–or showcase–whatever it is you’re writing an essay about. I could do well in this particular aspect, myself; admittedly, many of the posts on my blog lack any kind of visual aspect at all.

In my defense, I am way too distracted by my writing to have the time for pictures!

A last piece of advice–and this is for writing in general, but I feel compelled to repeat it–proofread before you go live! No one enjoys silly, quick-to-remove mistakes or sloppy grammar, punctuation and so on, and so forth.

I’m not claiming mastery when it comes to writing essays–on writing anything, for that matter–but these are a few guiding points which will be helpful for anyone who, like me, is interested in exploring this particular medium further.

I’ll get back to this topic someday, when I have greater experience with essay-writing. For now, thank you for reading, and I’m looking forward to next time!

 

Writing Advice: Dialogue

I’ve always been a sucker for excellent dialogue. Snappy, clever remarks make for memorable characters, situations and so much more! Dialogue has brought me to tears, and laughter, and has infused me with a hundred emotions that I couldn’t have expected would overcome me.

Dialogue doesn’t have to follow perfect grammar

You want the characters you write to be believable, plausible, real — not carbon outtakes with perfect diction, correct pronunciation and no quirks what-so-ever! Dialect can be written, and it should…although you probably don’t want to overdo it. Too much of any dialect might come off as confusing and distracting, and two things you never want to do with dialogue is confuse and distract.

Dialogue advances the plot

No one enjoys reading back-and-forth that doesn’t carry things forward; not for long, anyway.  Note, if you attempt to use your dialogue to dump information on your readers’ poor heads, you will (deservedly) earn yourself a great deal of annoyance. It’s a fine line, between these two states, and one you should take care to walk on. When you do, you should be putting your readers to work, looking for implications in the dialogue.

By adding implications, you make the dialogue a whole lot more interesting and engaging for the imagination.

Dialogue shouldn’t be repetitive

This one is pretty self-descriptive and could be added to the point before it. There are exceptions in certain situations — but then again, there always are!

Dialogue rarely needs speech verbs

Adding the likes of ‘she said, he said,’ and ‘he responded, yelled’ after each line of dialogue you write isn’t only necessary, it also gets boring after a while. Your dialogue will speak for itself most of the time, and will be unique and recognizable on its own merits.

We’re operating on the premise that your dialogue has merits, you see. A vote of confidence, if you ever got one!

Conversation can be direct and indirect

What does that mean? People will not talk about the same thing at the same time; I’ll often get asked some question, and go on a completely different tangent, change topics, sprint through them…and so much more.

That’s my two pence when it comes to Dialogue! See you next week!