Monthly Archives: June 2012

“Your structure is off…” — What Does That Even ‘Mean’?

You may have heard that.  In fact, you may have heard that from me, either by virtue of having me evaluate your story, or through your own interpretation of the story architecture principles I espouse here.

It may confuse you.  It may even piss you off.

Not everyone understands the difference between a principle and a rule. Truth is, there are no “rules” in art… but we can lay no claim to art until the principles that underpin effectiveness have been put into play.

That’s not a paradox as much as it is a major lightbulb going off.  If you haven’t heard that glorious little “click”  yet, keep reading, I’m pointing you toward the on switch.

In storytelling, however, what we do have instead of rules are options.  Creative choices.  And for those — to ensure that we don’t shoot ourselves in the foot — we have principles.

Principles are there to keep us safe, to empower our work.

When someone tells you your story structure is weak, it usually means one of the following: pacing is sluggish… not enough tension… no discernible character arc… too one dimensional… not complex or layered enough to sustain interest.  Dull as dirt.

Truth is, you’ll probably hear one of those dark critiques before you’ll hear about your structure.  But pay attention to both,, because one is cause and the other is effect.

Structure is the means toward pace, tension, arc, depth and compelling interest.  It is the roadmap, the paradigm, that allows them to happen in an optimal way.  To mess with structure — to believe you can make it up as you please — is to put these outcomes at risk.

The more you understand about cause and effect in your fiction, the better your stories will be.
The principles of story structure set you free to be great.

Step off a cliff and you will fall.  Do it with the right gear, something that mitigates the very physics you seek to defy, and you have a shot at living to leap another day.

Really?  Why can’t we simply write a story any dang way we please?

We can… provided the story aligns with the basic principles of fiction.  Trouble is, basic as the principles are, too many writers don’t consider them when facing the very  choices in a story that will define its ultimate effectiveness.

They just write it.  Something comes to them in the flow, and they put it in.  And then they move on.

Think of every airplane you’ve ever seen.  There are hundreds of designs, sizes and shapes.  Some have two wings, some have four, some barely have any.  Some have propellers, some don’t, some have strange tails (just as some writers tell strange tales… sorry about that typo in the first edition of this post),  some are shaped like a flying pachyderm.  Some don’t even have pilots.

There are no rules, if that’s how you want to intrepret it.

But… they all align with certain principles, or they cannot fly.

Same with our stories.

Why do certain things need to be in certain places, in a certain order, and in specific context to other certain things?

When you see this — story structure itself — as an application of principles rather than a constriction borne of rules, then you’re onto something.  This shift is perhaps the most critical milestone is a writer’s development, because without it one remains alone and without a compass in a sea of creative choices that will drown your story in a heartbeat.

Principles, not rules, give us access to the physics of storytelling.These universal literary forces don’t care if you understand them or not (kind of like gravity and the certainty that the sun will rise in the morning), they will always be there to influence your story, to either drag it down or lift it up… depending how you apply them.

What do bestselling authors know that you don’t?  It isn’t the freedom to break  what you might perceive to be rules.  Rather, they understand the awesome power of applying the principles of literary physics within a story.  It is the certain knowledge that it is the principles themselves that bestow freedom to our choices, in context to the certainty that to violate them is a sure route to literary suicide.

If that sounds harsh, it won’t once you understand what specific principles I’m talking about here.  If you don’t recognize them as essential, then you don’t understand fiction.

And if you want to call them rules, in that case… it doesn’t matter.  They don’t care, they’ll still kill you if you ignore them.

Here are the best of those principles.

A story without a hero to root for will not work well.  We don’t have to like our heroes (as readers), but we do need to root for them to keep us engaged.

Conflict — dramatic tension — is what makes a story more than a character study.  Plot is what gives characters something to do… and what your characters do becomes the optimal way to illuminate character.  Thus, these two elements of story physics — dramatic tension and hero empathy — depend on each other to work.

Compelling pace is more effective than stories with misguided pace.

The more vivid the world you create, the more vicarious the experience you deliver to your reader, the more succcessful the story will be.

These aren’t rules, they are principles of story physics.  Understand the difference.

That’s my belabored, over-written point today.  Understand the difference.

The real issue isn’t the physics, it’s the author’s relationship with the physics of storytelling…which include a compelling premise or concept, dramatic tension, pace, hero empathy, vicarious journey, and strength of execution (the latter being the goal of, and the sum total of, the Six Core Competencies of successful storytellingg.

When, perhaps unknowingly, or from a desire to break rules and do something you believe to be out of the box, by definition you are thus confused about what commercial creativity even means.  It’s almost impossible to cite an example of a story that has proven successful without those physics in play.

Better, then, to understand how to harness these story forces to make your story as good as it can possibly be within parameters of your own making.

Sometimes you get lucky, you tap into one or more of the elements of story physics intuitively as you unspool your narrative, but more often you succeed when you are conscious of these forces and don’t allow yourself to settle… when you push your story with a view toward optimizing the very forces that will give it wings.

And how do you do that?

By understanding the elements, context and mission of story architecture, as it manifests on the page via structure.

Where you start, what comes next, what comes after that, what and where and why to twist and evolve the story, how to end it… you optimize them not from the pure genius of your learning-curve savvy intuitive self, but from a proactive application of the role and inevitable presence of story physics in your vetting of, and ultimately your selection of, the elements and moments of your story.

Story structure isn’t a rule.  It is the means toward freedom to create without risk.

It is a set of principles that are illuminations of the truth about what makes a story work.

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The Universal Fairy Tale — A Guest Post* by Art Holcomb

Art Holcomb is a regular contributor to Storyfix.  He’s a professional screenwriter and storyteller, and teaches writing at the university level, among other dark and scary places. 

The nice thing about having a regular contributor like Art is that he can bring us cool stuff from elsewhere, meaning this is a guest post* within a guest post. 

I’ll let Art explain.  L.

*****

There are few things in life that I see and must immediately possess.

 This was one of them.

 To provoke that kind of response in me, the item must be both immensely valuable and unique.  I came across this guest post in the Huntington Post on April 16th (excerpt reproduced below) that sent me immediately to the Amazon Book site. What I found there is so simple and perfect that it belongs in the library of every fiction writer. 

This booklet takes but minutes to read, but I guarantee that you’ll be returning to it again and again as you write.  Although written for screenwriters, it relates easily to all types of fiction and  ranks up there with Larry’s STORY ENGINEERING and other books as a must-have reference and guide.

I’ll be using it in my screenwriting and graphic novel writing class this fall at UC Riverside, and at less than half the price of a fast food lunch, it’s one of the great values for writers everywhere.

My only regret – that I didn’t write it myself.  Enjoy!

Art Holcomb

*****

The Screenwriter’s Fairy Tale by Todd Glick 

PREFACE

When my first book Something Startling Happens: The 120 Story Beats Every Writer Needs To Know hit Amazon’s Top 5 for Film and Television books in December of 2011, and then #1 on Kindle for Screenwriting, it blew my mind and humbled me. You see, originally the information in that book wasn’t meant for the world at all. It was my own secret passion project to sharpen my writing skills. When you see the book on the shelves now, it’s all clean and tidy, but in reality the research process accumulated messy reams of dog-eared and tea-stained legal pads, a scratched stopwatch, a casualty of spent pens, and piles of over 300 scuffed-up DVDs of classic films.

This new work you’re about to read went through a similar process.

Why did I research so many movies? I wanted to get to the bottom of how stories worked so I could tell better yarns. The process reminded me of my teenage years. I loved peeking underneath the hood of my beat-ta-crap Chevy to see how the heap was put together. I would disassemble the individual parts that smelled of oil and gas, and study how they fit to make the engine rumble.

I’m that same way today with stories.

When you immerse yourself that deeply into figuring things out, you can’t help but walk away with a few insights. When I emerged from those four bleary-eyed years of story engine analysis, the knowledge I gained helped propel my stories towards the top of major screenwriting competitions, attracted options and script sales, and launched my book into the bestseller list, which led to other writing deals. But the coolest thing I gained from this whole journey, by far, was the worldwide emails from screenwriters who loved the book and benefited from it. It was those positive messages that inspired me to share even more insights.

Thus this new fable.

I adore screenwriters — we noble story warriors who toil countless hours alone in our rooms and in coffeeshops because we love movies so damn much. We savor how the stories make us feel, and we want — so desperately — to make others feel that same way. What a beautiful, precious cause.

This fable is dedicated to you.

In just a bit, you’ll be reading the exact same four-act fairy tale I wrote for myself to help me assemble the bare bones of a story; it’s also the template I use to write all my treatments. It’s a distillation of what I’ve found to be common in all successful movies — an archetypal story pattern used since the ancient Greeks. To help you even further, I included a matching paragraph-by-paragraph example of the Academy Award-winning film, The King’s Speech.

If you find The Screenwriter’s Fairy Tale useful, I’d love to hear from you. I’m at writerwrench@gmail.com. Oh, and please tell others about it.

All the very best, Noble Warrior.

CHAPTER ONE

Once upon a time, in every great movie ever made, there was an incomplete Boy who lived his normal everyday life in his normal everyday world. This Boy, who was orphaned in some way, desperately wanted something and thought that if he got that particular something, it would fix his incompleteness. He didn’t realize, however, that he had a much deeper problem on his hands — he possessed a stubborn flaw, which he was blind to. In fact, this flaw prevented him from getting what he really needed in his life: true happiness or enlightenment.

Going about his usual business, the Boy interacted with friends or a love interest and discussed that thing he desperately wanted. Some of his friends were nice and helpful, while others were mean. But just when the Boy was going to continue on repeating his same ol’ everyday habits, a predicament interrupted his life — a predicament that would eventually lead to the exposure of his flaw. The Boy found this predicament unsettling and feared it. In some cases, however, the predicament thrilled the Boy — he saw it as an opportunity. In this circumstance, his disquieted friends expressed fear for the Boy instead.

Soon after, the Boy met with a mentor. Sometimes the mentor was older and wiser and offered words of wisdom. Other times, the mentor appeared wise, but offered the wrong advice. Mulling over his chat with his mentor, the Boy realized that he still lacked something in his life. But the Boy didn’t understand why he lacked this something because his flaw still blinded him. In the midst of all these happenings, a bully made his presence known — a powerful adversary who would eventually find a way to exploit the Boy’s flaw in order to defeat him. As the Boy tried to maintain his bearings within his unraveling world, a startling life-changing event propelled him into uncharted territory.

End of excerpt.

Buy today for only $2.99 at Amazon.com.

*****

Do you see the four-part structure here?  (My screenwriter friends call it a three-part structure, but that’s more tradition than accurate).  Do you see the flow?  The set-up?  The First Plot Point?  The dramatic tension unfolding?

I think it’s brilliant, one of those truisms masked as cleverness wrapped in analogy packaged in metaphor and delivered as a frosted exercise in parallel interpretation.  Obvious, of course.

****

If you missed The Hunger Games deconstruction, click HERE for a menu of the posts in that series.

If you missed my June newsletter and would like to see what delicious writing mysteries I’ve shared with my secret cult of subscribers, click HERE.

Coming soon: The Amazing $100 Professional Story Coaching Adventure… get ready to save yourself a LOT of work.

QUICK NEWS FLASH: my book, Story Engineering, just won the General Non-Fiction category in the 2012 Next Generation Indie Book Awards (sharing the top spot with another book, which isn’t about writing; scroll down to find the category, this is separate from the Grand Prize in that category… confusing, I agree).  Also, my book, Warm Hugs for Writers, was a finalist in the ebook category. 

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