Monthly Archives: May 2013

“The Thieves of Joy” – A Guest Post By Art Holcomb

“Comparison is the Thief of Joy” – Theodore Roosevelt

Good vs. Evil. Right vs. Wrong. Love vs. Hate.

Luke vs. Vader. Werewolves vs. Vampires. Obama vs. Romney.

The Past vs. the Present.

The actual plot of “Lost” vs. whatever the Hell was going on there.

What it all comes down to is Opposition – the classic conflict within Life Itself. It is the basis for all perception and the very foundation of Story.

Because conflicts – the very building blocks of all stories – begin with a single comparison.

Whether it is a cool breeze on a hot, summer day or two armies rushing to oppose each other on a battle field, comparison exposes the differences between all things and, without it, conflict cannot exist. Duality exists in nearly every part in our lives and we enjoy the emotion of experiencing and embracing it’s inherent differences .  All sports, warfare, love, art and human interaction stem from our ability and our inherent need to differentiate between things. With difference comes opposition and judgment about which is better – and with judgment comes the heft and weight of emotion that drives our stories.

The Taoist philosophers believe that the descent of man from his purest state began the moment that he started naming things as he sought to describe the world.  It began with the simplest of distinctions, such as  “Night” and all that is “Not-Night”, “Me” and all those that are “Not Me” and, most important (for motivational purposes), “Mine” and all that is “NOT-YET-mine”. From the earliest moments of life, we learn by comparing.

As a child of the 1960’s, I had a poster on my bedroom wall of a poem entitled Desiderata  by Max Ehrmann, which went from being a minor work in 1927 to become a devotional for the Counter Culture Movement.  While the piece as a whole is still worthy of daily contemplation, one passage serves our purpose here regarding the twin fundamental truths about comparison and human nature:

“If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter; for there will always be greater and lesser persons than yourself.”

This is Human Drama in a nutshell, and an essential truth that you must not abandon in your writing.

So . . . what does this have to do with Teddy Roosevelt?

As creators, we must all be thieves of joy, using the distinct differences and specific desires of our characters to produce compelling conflict.

Because isn’t this what story structure is about? The upsetting of the apple cart? The ruination of the serene?

Each “World-Before-Story” we create in Act I is interrupted by the Inciting Incident, throwing things out of balance, and the remainder of the tale is all about seeking that vital and illusive New Balance. In our finest moments, we force our heroes to spend all of Acts II and III finding a middle ground that they can – and must – live with.

But it isn’t all about the conflict.  The power of contrast and comparison is at play in every step of the process.  Let’s take Roosevelt at his word and explore the power of comparison:

(1) Through Characters – as we write, the differences between now and then, hero and villain, right and wrong must be eventually clear to the reader so that they can choose up their sides in the contest.  What good is a hero that you cannot root for, or a villain to root against?  Your characters are, at their essence, the embodiment of your different IDEAS, and the comparisons you create for them are the way of testing their validity in story form. The specific sides need not be clear from the outset, and must not be in certain genres such as mystery and horror, but the contrasts and the characterizations must be clear enough for the reader/viewer to recognize the differences between the individual players.

(2) Through Scene – each scene must be necessarily different from the next and inhabitable enough to really place the reader/viewer there alongside your character.  The journey should be more of a cross-country drive – with many distinct and unique stops- than an airplane hop across country.  You need to sit inside each scene for a while and look around and truly get to know the place before you write.  Remember: you took your characters here for a reason – make the most of it. And make sure the locations have a character of their own as well and, through your descriptions, their own personality.

(3) Through Dialogue – make sure your characters truly sound different as they speak.  Do this by learning about speech patterns, rhythm and cadence.  Do not resort to accents or caricature to get this across.  Few things are worse than hokey dialogue that the reader must stumble through or the viewer must rewind to understand. Seek to write roles that are natural but different enough from one another that you could tell them apart without attribution.

(4) And through Your Own Voice – your work will be compared to others.  It has to happen in order for you to gain a following. Sometimes it seems that Hollywood and Big Publishing are merging into one great, shambling beast, and even as they cry for new and different voices, they continue to produce books, films and TV that all seems the same. Certainly, the marketplace loves to homogenize through their notion of “the-same-but-different” so that financial risks can be minimized, but that must mean little to you in the privacy of your own creating. Always give them something that can only come from you, and keep refining, improving and submitting until they finally “get you”.  It may take a while longer than pandering to the common denominator, but you’ll smile more often in the process.

By showing the reader/viewer the distinct nature of your characters and their world, we increase their ability to identify with your creations and your art. How well you use comparison and contrast in your writing dictates the power of your work and the efficacy of your message.

Until next time, don’t stop.

Never Stop.

Art Holcomb is a screenwriter and comic book creator. His most recent comic book property is THE AMBASSADOR and his most recent project for TV is entitled THE STREWN.


Filed under Guest Bloggers

Left-Brain, Right-Brain, or No-Brain At All

We’ve heard the phrase: it’s a no brainer.  Writing a story that works is the absolute opposite of that.

So let us attempt to put a fence around, if not quite sequential-ize or formula-ize, the nature of the successful storytelling process.

It all breaks down into three unique but dependent phases of story development.  The key word there is dependent… because they are, in the final analysis, sequential.  And thus, if you begin in the middle, the task is complicated by the process you’ve chosen.

Somewhere along this path – you get to decide where and when – the process evolves from three-by-five cards and yellow sticky notes and flowcharts… towards leaning into and finally becoming the act of drafting itself.

Which means if you start there, you need to know that you don’t get a free pass on the preceding development part, that you are creating the recipe while you are cooking the stew.

Not saying it doesn’t work, it does.  For some.  We all get to choose.  At the end of the day it’s all story development.

Either way… the process is both iterative and evolutionary.

Blank spaces in your flowchart (or in your head) become bullets which become phrases that turn into sentences that expand into paragraphs… that sometimes without realizing it, are suddenly full-blown scenes.  And then need to be blended into the whole, in context to the scenes that surround it.

Or you can do it backwards.  Scenes pop into your head, then you retrofit a mission and that all-important context.

Or not.  That being the source of a huge percentage of the rejection slips out there.

You can throw it all into a pot, stir it and heat it to boiling… or you can impart it all to a blueprint with the anal-retentive precision of a computer programmer under a deadline… or some combination in between… doesn’t matter, because the end-game is what it is, and that high bar is both blind to and oblivious to your chosen process.

The Three Realms

At any given moment in the storytelling process, you are either in:

1.  The conceptualization phase…

2.  The sequencing and execution phase…

3.   The revision and polishing phase.

Yes, we do bounce back and forth.  And it’s a good and normal thing to do.  But, like a triathlete who at any given moment is either swimming, biking or running, knowing the difference is fundamental to the game being played.

Conceptualization Phase

The conceptualization phase (which I’ve also dubbed the Search for Story phase)  is the creative dance between story idea, story concept and story premise (each being a different animal), leading toward a general story landscape and a compelling core dramatic question – where character and conflict collide – that can be pitched in a few lines in a manner that is compelling.  It’s what the story is about, without short-changing it.

In 99.9 percent of the cases in which the writer, when asked “what is your story about?” gives an incomplete or less than compelling DRAMATIC answer (like: “it’s about the effect of poverty on taxation…”), or says, “well, it’s kind of complicated…” this is a symptom of a writer still dwelling, perhaps swimming in, the initial story conceptualization phase, usually without realizing it.

Moving on, and then settling — executing a story that hasn’t fully experienced the Search for Story phase, lead to a killer core dramatic question — is seductive.  Yet, itt is the Great Killer of stories.

Let me repeat: until you’ve nailed your core dramatic question, or what that even means, you haven’t got a story.

Sequencing and Execution Phase

The story sequencing and execution phase is, literally, plotting it out in the order of narrative presentation, strategically setting up, exploring and resolving the core dramatic question through your characters.

This is when we identify the major story beats, in context to what we know from the initial conceptual phase planning (the search for story), and put them in the right spots, and then coming up with bridging story points that connect them.  It’s literally the identification of scene content, driven by (when done properly) the contextual mission of the story beat you’ve chosen for any given moment.

Consider this.  In fact, paste this on your monitor:

This is where dramatic arc and character arc become one in the same, and do so within the context to a fully developed conceptual story landscape.

If you want to break this down even further… the search for story includes finding the right sequence in which to tell it.  And when you’ve done that, via outline or draft, only then are you executing the story you’ve found.   Both of these are part of the second phase of story development.

You cannot search for story and execute the story at the same time.  Any more than you can hunt the goose and cook it at the same time.  Anybody who claims to do so – and they’re out there, some of them quite loudly – is really talking about revision and execution.

Read those last three paragraphs again.

Because right there is the 404-level understanding that many less experienced writers don’t get.  It’s one of the keys to writing publishable fiction, and it’s a loaded sentence.

Either way, whether it’s in an outline or a draft, when that happens you’re on to the third phase.

Revision and Polish Phase

Once on paper, you need to optimize what you have through revision and polish.  If your outline is solid, you won’t have as much challenge here as you will if you used drafting to get to this point.

In that latter case, the line between searching for your story and executing it is often a fuzzy one.  And it’s a line over which many writers get tripped up.

If you’ve outlined it, and you’re happy with the outline, it’s time to write the first draft, moving from search to execution.  If you’ve reached this point through drafting, it’s time to revise (as part of execution) and then polish it.

This is always true: the more you know about your story, and the more criteria you bring to it – however you get there – the closer to the finish line you will be.  Understanding where you are in these three phases of story development is the most empowering thing you can do to get there… safely.


Click HERE to see where your story currently resides on this three-phase story development path.


Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)