“Stay Tuned For Our Next Episode…” or Not.

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by Larry Brooks on April 3, 2013

You’re heard me rail and wail about episodic storytelling.  

I’ve called it toxic, referred to it as a dreaded story-killer.

Still think that, by the way.  But what the heck IS it?

The differentiation between what is episodic and what is not is thin and in constant motion.  It is made all the more complicated and obscured by the fact that, in any good story, there is indeed “stuff that happens” along the way… stuff that actually looks, smells and plays just like the very episodic context I’m preaching against.

Confusion becomes paradoxical.  But there’s a rule of thumb that helps: do you have a compelling CONCEPT in play?

The ticking off of “stuff that happens along the way” (exposition) that is in support of, pursuit of, and in context to a compelling CONCEPTUAL IDEA (not premise) is, in fact, the stuff of narrative.

Episodic scenes that simply unfold without context or connection to a compelling CENTRAL DRAMATIC CORE QUESTION… ONE  QUESTION, becomes that dreaded episodic approach.

The following may help.

This is the kind of issue that needs frequent revisiting from different angles.

A Story fix reader emailed me today, saying that she understood what I’m talking about (episodic storytelling versus, well, non-episodic and therefore better storytelling) in theory, but when it came to her story plan she found herself without clarity.  That line was wrapping itself around her outline and choking the life out of it.

This is, edited, expanded and paraphrased, my response to her:

Hi Jane (not her name) — great question.  This is one of the toughest things to wrap our heads around, the easiest “trap” to fall into, and often, we don’t even know we’ve done it.

My favorite “episodic” example is this hypothetical: you want to write a novel about your summer vacation.  Literally, “what I did on my summer vacation.”  Why? Because it was your best summer ever.  You did all kinds of stuff.  You fell in love.  Then had your heart broken.  Went to Paris.  Fell in love again.  Got sick, almost died.  Fell in love a third time with the doctor that saved you.  Came home a new and refreshed woman.

Sounds like a great novel, right?  But a reminder here… “Eat, Love Pray” (which played just like that) was NOT a novel.  It wasn’t even fiction.

All of the above “could” be a novel… but unless you added something to it, it would be an EPISODIC novel.  And probably, a bad, most likely publishable novel.  Not always, not certainly… but likely.

A-list authors can do it, we can’t.  Don’t imitate them on this one.

Why?  Because a story like that is just a bunch of stuff that “happens,” in a certain order, without a CONCEPT in play.  And while the hero did have a “problem” in this story (in fact she had several of them… and THAT is the storytelling problem here)… she didn’t have a CORE problem.  She had episodic problems.  Stuff that “Happened” to her.

This story has no core dramatic thread.  The key word: CORE.

There is no SINGULAR dramatic question being asked in the story.  It just goes from one thing to the other.

This is why weekly television is NOT a novel, because each week plays like a mini-drama, then it’s on to the next thing.  But a story like “The Following” (the current Fox hit, which is fantastic) DOES play like a novel, even when it has a weekly episode… because the whole thing is in CONTEXT to a SINGLE and powerful dramatic core, asking a single (though complex) dramatic question: will Kevin Bacon stop, and survive, the unfolding evil game playing out at the hands of the psycho bad guy cult leader serial killer?

The key: eEach “episode” takes us CLOSER to THAT resolution, that confrontation.  None of the episodes stand alone in terms of drama.  Each is a stepping stone toward the COMPELLING higher level of dramatic, conceptual question.

In the summer vacation example above, each episodic DOESN’T take us closer to anything, other then the end of her trip.  Each “thing” that happens to her stands alone, rather than expositionally-forwarding the narrative along a path TOWARD an inevitable resolution.

And what IS that question?  It’s your concept.  Your premise.  Your “idea” on steroids.  It is the SOURCE of dramatic tension… not just the STAGE for it.  Understand that difference and you’ll be on the road to avoiding the dreaded “too episodic” verdict.

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Click HERE to see if your Concept leans into episodic storytelling… or not.
Nik A April 4, 2013 at 4:21 am

Actually, there are good examples of episodic novels: e.g. Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” or Cervantes’ “Don Quixote”. etc.

Lee April 4, 2013 at 7:18 am

One could argue that there is an over-arching aim in both of those works, even if they contain episodes. Containing episodes is not what makes something episodic. Lacking an overall direction that each episode moves toward is episodic.

Joel D Canfield April 4, 2013 at 8:03 am

Examples like this, attacking the confusion from a different angle, are immensely helpful.

I actually think I’m getting it.

MikeR April 4, 2013 at 8:28 am

It’s also worth observing that some historical fiction works were, in fact, serialized. “A Christmas Carol” originally appeared in a series in a popular magazine – generating so much “fan mail” for Mr. Dickens that he felt the need to capitalize, “who did NOT die,” in the final installment. Each “stave” reaches an orderly and reasonably self-contained conclusion, and each might be said to consist of a series of vignettes or episodes, but the overall work points to -one- irresistible conclusion. There’s never any sense that you’re just going on an adventure. (It’s also been pointed out that the work was designed so that you could more-or-less figure out what is going on if you happened to drop-in at the middle.) It was a very popular way to publish for a while.

Kerry Boytzun April 4, 2013 at 9:34 am

Perhaps one should locate a TV series that one finds compelling to watch each episode for the overall story that’s in it–vs. those TV series that you are watching for other reasons: you like the actor; you like the class of characters (vampires, good fellas, motorcycle gangs, zombies–GAG)

Lately I’ve been watching the Alias series that ran for five seasons I believe. Season Three was the best so far due to how it started: Sidney (female CIA wet-work spy) wakes up in a foreign city and learns that: everybody thought she had died at the end of season two due to DNA evidence of her body in the remains found after her house burned down; her lover-coworker left the CIA and got married to someone ELSE; best of all–Sidney has NO MEMORY of the last two years since she “died” in the house fire at the end of season two.

What a concept! It really hooked me more than most anything I’ve seen or read in a long time. I always imagine what it would be like to be the lead character…you know, the one the story is “about”. You’re a veteran CIA spy who has no recollection of the last two years and your life two years ago–FEELS like YESTERDAY. Yesterday, for you (Sidney) was you were thinking about getting married to your lover and had friends at work. Yesterday you had made love to your lover–who is now married to someone ELSE.

Yes, season three of Alias was the best overall story I had seen. Made the Sopranos…well, just dull. Season three DID come to a satisfying conclusion as it should have. JJ Abrams was the writer.

Next is season four. as in season SNORE! As in no concept, no nothing, zilch other than a change of “venue” for our favorite CIA team. zzzzzzzzzz

My point is that season four of Alias is just a bunch of episodes with nothing to ROOT for, nothing to care about…same old same old. Sure they go globe trotting chasing bad guys and wiping them out. But that’s what they always do.

My “advice” or thought, is to look for when you (either the reader, viewer, or writer) is making “excuses” for why you keep reading or watching some story that just isn’t a page turner. You’re “waiting for something to happen” but the excuses are: I like the actors; I love vampires (True Blood); the “lines” are funny (good dialogue); I like the way the author “writes” (I think most of the A list writers get away with a great writing voice while the story is MIA).

These “excuses” are allowing either what you are reading or writing–to be less than great, and highly likely just lame average. I hear a lot on this blog from the responses that many don’t want to make a “thriller” that’s “scary”. Why not? Be honest. Is it because you’ve become attached to your characters? In real life we want it easy but that’s the dullest story to ever read. The Firm (John Grisham) was scary for a couple that thought they had hit the jackpot in life. It turned out to be anything but.

On the other hand, people tell me they want to write uplifting stories…ones that make you feel good. My wife has to watch The Blind Side when ever it’s on TV because she loves the Cinderella story…rags to riches. Same with Good Will Hunting, and the Shaw Shank Redemption.

I just question “playing it safe” with writing your novel just so that it becomes a “feel good” story. Where’s the challenge, the tension in the scenes? Read the book “The Plain Truth” by JP and you’ll see an example of a B-A lister author write a story with virtually no tension…I kept making excuses to keep reading it, and finally decided to analyze it for what specifically was making it slow, dull and unsatisfying. Where was the editor for that one? A clear example of an author writing intuitively instead of “including” story structure physics.

While I’m on a rant, I’ve noted a LOT of authors, published ones, that are trying to teach people on how they write by making sure you have specific types of scenes included in your story. BUT there’s no big picture how it all works together. That part is left to chance.

What novels as of late have been real page turners? You stay up because you can’t put it down and it’s a great ride…lots of tension, worry, and you aren’t sure IF the hero will be alive at the end (or get the girl, succeed, etc.).

I get a lot of “I don’t like to write Thrillers” like you like to read. Really? Sounds like an excuse to write something slow and dull. Good Will Hunting wasn’t a thriller yet had the best writing I’ve seen to date. It’s deep and profound on many levels. And it ain’t no thriller.

Larry’s structure et all is great and yet sometimes I think that people just really don’t develop an Antagonistic Force worth fearing or rooting for. The difference between you caught a cold vs. you learned you may have aids or cancer. Gee, which one makes you re-examine your life?

Apologies for if this comment rode off the rails…I’m fighting off the flu or something…yuck.

Kerry

Sara Davies April 4, 2013 at 11:33 am

Even if I get to the point where I understand the difference between episodic meandering and concept-driven story telling (the first hurdle)…applying that knowledge to my own work is a different issue. If I have a story goal, or central battle to be won or lost, is that enough to get beyond “episodic”?

I sort of kind of understand what the plot points should do, but finding them in what I’ve written (if they are there at all), or planning them into new stories is much harder. It’s easier to recognize patterns in other people’s work.

What I hope to do is create a methodology for implementing the criteria in SE (and SP).

Knowing I don’t understand is not enough.

Understanding is not enough.

I’m still left with the problem of figuring out HOW to establish a PROCESS – one that can be repeated – for achieving the necessary criteria. My guess is that a workable process would be different for everyone, so I can’t rely on methods used by others.

Last night I watched the movie “Minority Report” and noticed that the “foreshadowing” doesn’t just involve symbols or patterns, but is directly tied to the plot. The main character meets a drug addict with no eyes. Later, he has his own eyes removed and replaced. There’s a recurring motif of what it means to “see” in a prophetic sense, but I’m not sure if that by itself would count as “foreshadowing”.

@ Kerry: Hope you feel better. Sleep + water.

Sara Davies April 4, 2013 at 11:39 am

@ Kerry:

I tend to agree….On the one hand, what’s disturbing and traumatic can ultimately be more uplifting than rainbows and unicorns. On the other hand, rainbows and unicorns are often quite boring. I don’t think this means there have to be explosions, plagues, murders…but there does have to be some kind of central conflict that is communicated with a level of feverish intensity. In the novel “My Name is Asher Lev,” the entire story revolves around whether or not a guy’s family is OK with him making art. It’s a pretty tame issue that for most people wouldn’t mean very much. But the author makes it a life or death problem for the main character. It is not so much about the events but the significance attributed to the events and the emotional energy and stakes driving the character’s choices.

Robert Jones April 4, 2013 at 1:35 pm

@Kerry–Good points. I’ve read some of those A-list authors that went nowhere. I like a good slice of life story, but there still has to be tention and conflict in there or they become just what Larry says, a series of random events. I can’t recall the title of a V. S. Naipaul novel I read a few years back, but it had some great discription in places. However, by the time the book skipped around a handful of events about the character’s life, it ended on a note that (and I’m going more by the feeling than possibly the exact words) the character just left and didn’t see anything more. A glimpse into a life that had no conclusion and didn’t really tie together.

Great writer? I’m going to probably sound naive when I say that, “Everyone says so.” But by what standard? Because he’s great at writing “partial” biographies turned into fictional accounts of a life in progress? Maybe that was just a bad choice as far as his novels go, but I never read another one based on my wanting to heave the book across the room when I closed the covers…quite possibly I did. It’s happened a few times.

Richard Ford, on the other hand, has a very internally conflicted character in “The Sports Writer” and “Independence Day.” But his problems extend into a life he is trying to come to terms with and always has conflict. So the slice from that character’s life is a lesson learned from his circumstances. It goes somewhere, it isn’t randomly depicted events. An A-list author can’t get off by showing me a character without conflict leading up to some type of climactic event in the character’s life.

If the events in a life (real or fictional) aren’t exceptional, take a memoir class and leave fiction alone.

Gripping to me means a couple of different things, however. And that depends on what I’m reading, or watching. Events can be subtle, the prose, or performance, moving. But the emotion still has to be behind them. It may not be the same as a thriller, mystery, or horror–all of which have very different attitudes toward suspense. What defines suspense for each has one definitive bond: anxious uncertainty.

Those emotions need to be tugged at, pulled along by a force that is lead by the locomotive called curiosity. And just like the tracks of a train, the thread of consistancy (also known as the core dramatic conflict) must string all events together, weaving them whole. Otherwise you end up with a series of narratives, or events, that peak and fall, peak and fall. That’s how most TV shows move along, even if there is a chief antogonistic force that recurs sporadically throughout, leading to some type of seasonal cliff-hanger.

If you want to see a really tedious example of how this plays out in a novel, just read the first of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “Tarzan” novels. Each chapter is pretty equal in length, 10-12 pages, each ending on a new cliffhanger. The subsequent chapters resolve the problem left off at in the previous chapter’s cliff-hanger, leading up to another problem for Tarzan, and yet another cliff-hanger ending. And if that sounds exciting, or like a good way to keep a reader reading, consider this: it’s all the same. No beat ever changes, no chapters is more significant than the other. By the time you’re halfway through it, you either be bored to tears, or just plain sea-sick from the up and down, up and down….

Also, a word of advice to those who quoted good episodic reads from 19C novels: there was no TV, or movies back then. In other words, no competition for the episodic, or the meandering of thought and description that might overtake a story. It has been suggested that all of those 19C people are now dead, so if you write like that, you will be writing for a dead audience.

Not that you can’t find interesting stories and universally usable material. But for a modern audience, or a new writer, it would have to be framed (structured) quite differently to succeed commercially. When we turn toward those novels, it is with a different expectation, a different sense of literary values, than we would find today. Even a period piece that captures that 19C flavor, is still going to be written, and structured, more tightly, more visually–and a lot less episodic–in terms of a novel.

Zoe April 4, 2013 at 2:12 pm

@ Sara, I agree completely on knowing and understanding not being enough. What I took from this post though is the process, at least on achieving the necessary criteria for getting beyond episodic. Basically through the process of understanding I came up with a way to check, that worked – for me.

Once you understand the following you can apply it as a question to your story idea and see if you have succumbed.

The question then: Does the unfolding narrative keep in context to the ‘core dramatic thread’?

Posed another way: Does your story play out with scenes that are mission driven towards the singular dramatic thread or core story?

These are really all Larry’s words, but when you re-establish them as a question and ask it of your story idea THAT, for me, became the process.

Of course this is just one process on one small part of writing a novel. Since it was exactly the issue I was struggling with, Larrys advice on this subject has unstuck me and has been absolutely golden right now.

Let me know if you figure out any other potential processes to any of this writing milarky, as I am right there with you on the search.

@ Robert – Agree completely, especially with the last two paragraphs. Another point to make would be that those old ‘adventures of’ type stories probably do have some kind of core story in them if you really look for it.

Robert Jones April 4, 2013 at 2:25 pm

@Zoe–Framing Larry’s words into those questions is not only cool, but pretty much the exact questions to ask concerning every scene, IMHO.

Very cool!

Yes, many of those old adventure stories do have their thread, or bad guy, being trailed. Not all of them hit on them enough to keep that “core” in the forefront. It’s like, Tarzan chase bad men, get side-tracked by wild natives, get side-tracked more by wild animals, fall in snake pit, fall in quicksand–and by this time, the bad guys are living in up in Bora Bora with the proceeds from all the stolen goods, and Jane’s body has been dumped in a tar-pit somewhere.

Sara Davies April 4, 2013 at 3:26 pm

@ Zoe

Yeah. I think those are important questions. I have no short-term memory, so I’ve taken to putting my “statement of concept” at the top of every page as a reminder.

Letting content obscure structure is a big problem. But that happens after a concept is in play.

I would like to establish a method for generating viable concepts. How to take any situation, person, event, setting and ask what could be controversial about it. How to make characters stand for different sides of an issue. How to put opposites together to generate conflict. How to flip expectations 180 degrees. How to describe ideas or current events metaphorically. Mostly I’m trying to look at concepts that seem to work well and figure out why they are compelling and what the components are and how those components interact. It’s not just comparing boring ideas to cool ideas and being able to say yeah, this is one is more interesting than that one…but figuring out WHY cool ideas are cool. What do cool ideas do that boring ideas don’t do? This is not only about the content of those ideas, which is another layer and important – but what do cool ideas do just in terms of their internal dynamics. I’m looking for the higher up, more abstract level of how that works.

Zoe April 4, 2013 at 3:43 pm

Well there are probably a lot of different answers to that. I would say from what I have learnt on storyfix alone the most important toolto elevate the concept and make it cool is to insinuate. Insinuate conflict, drama, potential and ask a question that you just have to know the answer to.

But like I said there are probably many other things that make a concept cool vs. boring and my point is just one of them. And again I am definitely there on the search with you for the processes/checklists/components/processes that become the way to apply it to any story including our own.

Kerry Boytzun April 4, 2013 at 4:25 pm

@Sara
You said: “episodic meandering and concept-driven story telling”. I think you want to know how a writer can tell when she is meandering vs. sticking to the concept?

Here’s a technique: find something in life that does makes sense to you and then use that as a platform (allegory, metaphor) to figure out what doesn’t make sense to you. I’m going to use “car travel” as the allegorical platform, as I’m sure you have experience with “going on a trip” (driving from point A to point B).

The concept for this allegory car trip, while not compelling, is that you will drive from Seattle to San Francisco in 10 hours using a rental car from the Seattle airport. Your specific destination will be the Waterfront Restaurant on Pier 7, in San Francisco. Note that Googlemaps said the drive was 806 miles with a drive time of 12 hours and 18 minutes. Whoops, you have to make it in 10 hours…or your car will blow up! (Been watching too many Alias shows…have to spice up this “story”). Oh yeah, lets see now…you will have a passenger that you HATE and despise. A co-worker. This co-worker is your “cargo” as she has knowledge of a secret organization that is worth a bundle to some dark people–who will pay you IF you show up with her on time. If not…kaboom. Oh, we put ankle bracelets on both of you and if you get too far away from the car…kaboom…so don’t be running away from the car with the bomb.

Okay, so far your number one goal as the driver is to get your passenger to San Fran in 10 hours (or less) using the rental car provided for you. This is your core goal, your allegory’s core destination.

ANY SCENE needs to stick to this “destination”. Stick to it–means your actions are Relevant to your destination.

“Meandering” would mean you are stopping off to be a tourist along the way…visit some old relatives, etc.–the KEY here is that anything Meandering will NOT help you get to your destination. Meandering means NOT Relevant to your destination.

Any RELEVANT scene is one that is either getting you to your destination OR HINDERING you from getting to your destination.

Thus, imagine you are driving for real on this trip. Going “off course” should be at the very least, irritating to you because it is impeding your advance to San Francisco. Because of the ankle bracelets and the car bomb–these are stakes (negative stakes because you die…)–that increase tension and make this story more interesting to you (if you really had to drive it) and more interesting to tell it to someone else–assuming you live.

Writing any scene for this car journey (allegory=story) should entail anything that would be relevant to the story as in getting you closer to San Francisco, or impeding your travel. All irrelevant scenes are to be cut, no exceptions.

Such relevant scenes that will impede your destination (goal): car gets a flat tire; road construction slowing traffic; running low on gas and no gas stations; your passenger behaves in a way that you want her to die but just not on your drive; the police pull you over for speeding.

Relevant scenes contributing to your success (getting you closer to San Francisco–the goal): each mile marker sign that shows the miles to the cities in-between Seattle and San Fran are getting less; you’re driving so fast that you are “ahead of schedule”; you talk the police officer that pulled you over for speeding–into letting you off with a warning; you fix your tire with the help of another motorist; you find a gas station that wasn’t on the map–and it is open; you talk your passenger into shutting up and being silent–for an hour so you can drive.

Now the big question is WHEN do you put in success scenes vs. impeding scenes? That’s where you use Larry’s four Acts.

In a nutshell you will “setup” this driving journey in Act 1 up to the FPP whereby you are stuck having to make this trip. You don’t start off the story with the trip–we readers want to know WHY YOU were chosen for this trip–instead of someone else. Wrong place at the time? Or something more meaningful?

Act 2 is after the FPP which is where a line is drawn in the sand. Someone could have met you and your co-worker and told you both “here’s the deal–you two are going on a drive–or else we kill both of you right this second…so whadda ya say?”

Act 3 and Act 4…you will get to San Francisco. Of course, if this was Alias, they would expect that you and your co-worker were going to die anyhow AFTER you got to San Francisco–so you had to come up with some kind of plan, a deterrent to save your life. At least your life, as you may not like your co-worker.

The above story is an allegory of any story that has a destination to reach. It’s about the RELEVANCE that is set by the author via the story concept. Stories exist in scenes, not really in paragraphs and sentences. Same goes for movies. Any movie scene should explain something relevant to the story, either Act 1 (setup) Act 2 (in trouble from the FPP), Act 3 and Act 4.

Do you remember the movie, Rocky in 1976?
“A small time boxer gets a once in a lifetime chance to fight the heavyweight champ in a bout in which he strives to go the distance for his self-respect. ”

Rocky was written by Sylvester Stallone (his screenplay was nominated for an Oscar–Best Screenplay. Look at the destination: heavyweight bout. Every scene was relevant to it, and had much hindering before any success. Lots of the scenes were of a psychological nature whereby the character, Rocky, was really in his own way from succeeding–as pointed out by his manager (you’re a bum! you could be great but you choose to be a bum).

Rocky 1976 won best picture and other awards.

Hope this helps

Kerry

Sara Davies April 4, 2013 at 5:18 pm

@ Zoe:

It’s that “question you have to know the answer to” part that’s interesting. Why do you have to know the answer, is what I’m getting at. I’m looking for something like the structure of concept. The whole book has a structure. Concept must also have a structure.

@ Kerry:

Right. That’s a great description.

The ongoing problem…is that it is not just one scene, but maybe a series of scenes…that seem to add up to an FPP. I can’t isolate one exact moment that defines the conflict going forward, despite knowing what the conflict is. I don’t know if I have a midpoint or not. What I thought was the 2nd PP isn’t a plot point at all. I’ve got a story conflict, a travel plan, and a destination. The highway markers are still missing, and I can’t find them. The hero gets from Point A to Point B, but I have no idea how.

MikeR April 4, 2013 at 5:19 pm

Once again, a few unrelated-but-interesting thoughts on “episodic” writing when you specifically intend to do it intentionally…(!) It’s quite a different target to hit.

There were two or three early “Star Trek” books – The World of Star Trek, and The Trouble With Tribbles – which had a lot to say, very specifically, about writing episodes of a 1960’s television series. (Including the list-building processes that actually went into every one of the selections we today take to have been obvious – “Enterprise,” “Kirk,” “Spock,” and so on.) Episodes of course in those days were produced once a week, were just as likely to be shown on B&W television, and had to pass the network censors. Above all, they were REQUIRED to be “episodes,” and there were very stringent guidelines from Desilu Studios (as in “Desi [Arnaz] +Lu[cille Ball]”) as to what that must be. As Spock would say, “Fascinating.” Very interesting to take a peek at the man behind the curtain.

In “Tribbles,” David Gerrold relates the travails of creating his first screenplay, not knowing it would become iconic. Not even knowing how it would be (or if he could sell it). My memory of that book is: “a touch of Klingon made it a story.”

The other comment has to do with the Stratemeyer Syndicate (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stratemeyer_Syndicate) which is where =all= those books you read as a kid … Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, the Bobbsey Twins, the Rover Boys … actually came from. 100% formula, and designed so to be. Well, “they were fantastically successful, in their day” … but I don’t think we want to imitate them now. Once again, a very interesting peek into what writing used to be.

Robert Jones April 4, 2013 at 6:01 pm

@Sara–It sounds like you’re going through something very similar to what I just (hopefully) got past. In terms of dissecting and rearranging a novel that has been planned and written, it’s very tough to undo what’s been done in your head. There are scenes and even bits of scenes that added something that I would like to figure out a way to use from my previous incarnation. But even my basic location has changed during certain parts of the story.

Step by step, I ended up cutting everything but the basic premise of the main character’s past–the important things that lead him to the place the current conflict will take place. Three fourths of it is now a totally new story, working from the same basic theme. It has been frustrating and a lot of work. Even more so when you understand this is a trilogy and every character needed a history, and since each story goes further back into the past, all events need to conclude with the events in the first novel, plus all be self contained stories. UGH!

But as Kerry said, once I understood that final destination, so much played off of that. I think that once the destination is clear, or you are satisfied with the outcome, maybe we can simplify Zoe’s questions even more, break them down a bit. Sometimes it can become mind boggling while trying to learn something new, plus be creative within the context of things we are still trying to mentally wrap our minds around–like mission statments of each scene, and how everything stems from the core dramatic conflict. Those things are important, but let’s take this in layers, since you already have a story. So when listing your scenes, let’s try framing them with two very simple questions:

1) Does each scene characterize?
2) Does it move the story forward?

If it doesn’t do one, or both, of these things, fix it so it does, or cut it if the rest of the plot will still make sense without it.

Once you have a list of scenes that all lend themselves to the plot, you’ve already come a long way in terms of having them relate to the core conflict and defining their mission.

Then, you can move on to phase two–lining up those four buckets labeled for each part of your story and dropping those scenes into place. Some will fit just fine, others might need a little work. For example, a reactionary scene in part three may have to adjusted to make it appear as a heroic action, rather than a realing response to something the villain may toss at the hero.

Phase three, and this is where we’ll add a more complex layer, the one that makes certain that the missions and milestones are in their optimal working order. This seems to be the stage that’s giving you some trouble, so maybe you’re already at this point.

The key is, while learning, take things up to the level you currently understand with each phase of you’re learning. This will help you cement what you’ve already learned. But don’t try to do it all at once, or force it to go where it feels wrong, or uncertain. If it does (and it sounds that way from what you’re saying), take a step back to the last place you were sure of yourself, then plan the next phase. Or take a little time to learn exactly what that next phase might entail, then move forward when you’re ready.

Give me a holler if you need help.

Kerry Boytzun April 4, 2013 at 6:45 pm

@Sara said: The ongoing problem…is that it is not just one scene, but maybe a series of scenes…that seem to add up to an FPP. I can’t isolate one exact moment that defines the conflict going forward, despite knowing what the conflict is…

Okay, I imagine I am the main character in real life. The FPP is a scene where you are presented with a dilemma that will require you to act OR you will suffer a severe consequence (or someone you care about will, hence you will suffer).

Let’s say you have a child, Bobby. Bobby is ten and the last time you saw him today he was taking the bus to school. It’s now late afternoon and the bus drove by and Bobby is NOT at your house. How do you know if this scene is the FPP? The answer is in “does it force you to act AND if you do not act, you will suffer a KNOWN consequence?” In this case, the answer is NO, you can wait to see if Bobby shows up, or make some calls if you like…BUT there is nothing explicit that will happen if you make calls or do nothing. It’s not a FPP moment.

Let’s say that a few hours go by and you have called your friends and family members regarding Bobby…even the school. No Bobby. You are very worried. Is anything going to happen for sure if you do nothing? Not really as you don’t know for certain what could or will happen. Sure you are imagining the worse, but that is still the setup.

At some time you will have to have a scene that either: has someone contact you that they have Bobby but they want something from you; Bobby is dead as discovered by the police; you find someone that saw Bobby being abducted and you have a clue as to who they are.

You can’t have an aimless “searching for Bobby” story–because that isn’t compelling. It drags and drags regardless of how realistic it is. In real life, your child is taken–he’s probably gone and nobody saw. A novel however, is about a child abduction story–where something happened that was interesting: the Mother becomes Sherlock Holmes and finds her child; it’s a ransom scenario and Mom is contacted with instructions.

The FPP forces Mom to DO something or ELSE something will happen for sure that’s specific and something she wouldn’t like. Mind you there was a comedy called Ruthless People 1986 with Bette Midler, Danny DeVito:
A couple, cheated by a vile businessman, kidnap his wife in retaliation, without knowing that their enemy is delighted they did.

It’s hilarious and it’s a story. Note that the FPP is also when the bad (dumb) guys call the husband with their demand for ransom–but this scene is setup for Midler to go against Devito–as she enlists the help of the couple that kidnapped her. If I recall, the FPP is when Devito does something that will affect the financial affairs of Midler’s character and that forces her to act.

No force–No FPP.

Eve Harris April 4, 2013 at 10:10 pm

Episodic storytelling in relation to TV Series – I agree that a compelling concept must drive the story forward. That what makes me ‘stay tune’ for the next episode. I watched Supernatural not because it has cool monsters and whatnot, I watch it because I want to know what happened to the father and whether the brothers will find him. If there’s only cool premise and no ‘core’ plot, then I tend to search for a Romance subplot. Will the hero and heroine get together? I guess that’s why a TV series is not interesting anymore once the resolution is reached (they overcome the core problem, or the hero & heroine finally get together). Sadly if a TV series is popular then the network would just extend it to another season, without having another compelling core concept (I guess that’s why I stopped watching Supernatural). Funny thing is, the loyal fans (maybe they’re too invested with the characters?) would get mad when it gets cancelled (while the wise people in the network programming see the big picture, that there’s no more story/major conflict to tell).

Episodic storytelling in relation to outlining a WIP – I guess it’s easy to get sidetracked when writing Romance, every little thing can be used as an excuse for the main characters to get together and build the relationship ;)

Sara Davies April 5, 2013 at 10:58 am

@ Mike & Eve:

Seems like most series books or TV installments do have both an internal dramatic trajectory (stories get resolved within the format) and a story line that continues from one book or episode to the next (I agree with Eve that without the long-term story line, TV shows tend not to be very compelling. Unfortunately, what often happens is they set up a story line, the show gets cancelled, and the stories never get resolved). Dorothy Sayers did that with her mystery novels…as did Walter Moseley with his Easy Rawlins mysteries. Each book is contained – you don’t have to read the others, but if you do, there’s a meta story. I’m sure many writers have done taken this approach. Obviously the Harry Potter books pulled that off brilliantly.

Mike, you reminded me of the Connie Blair mysteries I read as a kid – “The Riddle in Red” – another Nancy Drew type of girl detective character who goes undercover in cosmetics factories to discover the evil secret behind the lipstick formula or whatnot. What would it look like to take a retro approach, stylistically, to a series set in the present?

Eve: What about ways to keep the romance characters apart?

@ Robert: I like what you said about how each scene has to move the story forward.

@ Kerry: Thanks, that was helpful. What forces you to act or respond as the FPP. Good point. That helps a lot.

Got my story questionnaire back from Larry. Just want to say: His feedback is totally bad-ass. Completely worth the investment.

I’m hopeful that at some point all of this stuff will click, and I won’t have to wonder if I have things right or not. No use being right by accident.

Robert Jones April 5, 2013 at 11:10 am

Sara–Glad to hear Larry came through :)

Zoe April 5, 2013 at 11:45 am

@ Sara – You said “It’s that “question you have to know the answer to” part that’s interesting. Why do you have to know the answer, is what I’m getting at. I’m looking for something like the structure of concept. The whole book has a structure. Concept must also have a structure.”

Well if there isn’t a question that you have to know the answer to, why would you bother to turn the page and keep reading? Perhaps then the structure of concept is to define the thing that makes your story interesting enough ‘sounding’, that it makes someone want to read it?

I could be way off on this one though!

@ Robert – Is your email address up for grabs by anyone? I am always open to delving deeper into these conversations to try and get to the bottom of things. Would like to swap concepts with other people in a similar stage of the writing process as myself, I think there’s probably something to be learnt from doing that.

Zoe April 5, 2013 at 11:47 am

Share probably a better word than swap above lol!

Robert Jones April 5, 2013 at 12:14 pm

@Zoe–Sure, I’m fine with that. The sharing more so than the swapping…LOL! Although it would certainly be interesting if we swapped and wrote each others stories. Mostly they wouldn’t resemble what we had in mind when we got them back though.

Sara Davies April 5, 2013 at 1:04 pm

@ Zoe:

What makes something interesting or memorable? What makes a concept compelling enough that you need to know the answer to the question it poses? What are the characteristics of an event that, once you hear about it, you can’t contain yourself and have to tell someone about it?

I’m guessing that things people normally pay attention to include:

emergencies, disasters, accidents
the unexpected or unusual
the awe inspiring
the confusing or mysterious
violations of social norms and values
violations of cherished political or religious beliefs
perceived threats to the status quo
pain, illness, death
extreme good fortune

What else?

Zoe April 5, 2013 at 1:17 pm

Rob – Definitely mistyped swap for share sorry! I am happy with my own story, but there has to be something to take from sharing our concept (as it is now) and sharing some feedback? I did try to click your name but evidently that isn’t how I find your email address… Clearly I am not with it today lol.

Sara – I think I can sum it up for you actually. One word (in one way or another) applies to that entire list (unless you have experienced them in which case the word becomes relatable), anyway the word is one Larry uses all the time:

Vicarious

If we read a story about our morning at work where we followed our same old routine and absolutely nothing out of the ordinary happened any different to any other day… well how UNinteresting would that be? Think we have nailed this one on the head!

Robert Jones April 5, 2013 at 1:55 pm

Vicarious experience is definitely something Larry has given writers a lot of food for thought on. It could cover a lot of ground, most of which Sara already stated. But when you use such things to pull the reader into a story, what’s at the heart of it all?

People buy books, watch movies, because it provides a certain stimulus. Like dreams within the mind when we sleep, these vicarious experiences either fall into the category of wishful thinking…something we might fantasize about, or exactly the opposite, something we dread and hope never happens to us personally. The interesting thing about fiction is people love problems and dire circumstances…so long as it isn’t happening to them.

Gossip, secrets, also very good grist for that particular mill. A reader gets to be the proverbial fly on the wall, watching, listening to all the things people would never air publicly. And the juicier the subject, the more scandalous, or shameful, the more they stay riveted.

It’s a fact of some interest that people’s delicate sensibilities, the face they put on in public…the one who would flee in terror, die of embarrassment, or just plain walk away from due to their high morals, will be glued to these things during their favorite news programs. The ratings of the media, and the sensibilities of the public would seem to contradict one another.

@Zoe–my email is in Larry’s last thread, I believe. rjones221b@gmail.com

Zoe April 5, 2013 at 2:28 pm

Surely the core story is the thing at the heart of it all? While the vicariousness of the concept is more something that elevates it/makes it more interesting? Its true that no one concept will ever peak everyone’s interest, but I personally want to acquire the interest of as many as possible and I think raising the vicarious ride the core story delivers is a good way to do that.

What about a vicarious idea that both transports you into a situation you wish you could experience… but which is also terrifying and we hope never actually happens to us. That’s the grand sandwich for me, but then my favourite genre is Post-Apocalyptic fiction lol.

Vicariousness is nowhere near enough on its own. Anyone seen the film In Time? That was a film I highly anticipated because of the concept… but the core story for me just paled in comparison, the vicariousness was there, but I felt the actual story that came out of that concept didn’t do it justice at all. I came out of the movie whining to my husband that I could have done so much better with the same seed of an idea.

And here I am working heavily at the moment on getting my own concept right and in doing so I am taking your kind of approach (Sara), applying everything Larry has taught on the subject to try and define a structure for concept.

What I have come up with is a sort of checklist for finding your concept, at the highest level, some/most of it is probably the same thing in different forms to be honest. Please DO tell me if you think any of them do not belong in the list because they are not relevant or point out what I have missed, or hell write your own list and share it. So far I have:

Define the heroes goal or problem to solve.
Show the antagonistic force which stands in the way of the hero reaching the goal to imply conflict.
Define or imply what’s at stake to heighten both sides motivation to raise dramatic tension.
Define a core dramatic story that is fresh and compelling to read.
Show a vicarious journey that the none fiction world doesn’t have the potential to fullfill – this one probably opens up your story to more readers the more people it applies to.
Expose the specific thing that happens and must be resolved.
Define what your core story is about at a dramatic level so that you know what the heart of the narrative will be as the writer.
DO NOT just describe the situation/arena/back story – that’s not the top level of concept.

Concept seems to have two parts to its structure which I am struggling to define on the list. Basically whether the concept should 100% define so that you know that thing as a writer, or whether it should simply imply (that which you know as a writer) so that it is more of a sales pitch? We should really have the definition of all those things in our minds as writers, but how much do we define and how much is only implied in the concept you will use to pitch your novel?

Thanks Robert – I will send you where I am with my concept this weekend and feel free to do the same? And I hope it goes without saying that I am not after your idea (despite the swap mistype earlier lol) – Constructive conversation is the main aim hopefully for both sides. I am working on Larry’s questionnaire at the moment but stuck on ensuring my concept is right, at least I have his feedback to set me straight once its complete!

Robert Jones April 5, 2013 at 5:59 pm

@Zoe–I don’t believe most concepts statements are (if any truly can be)100%, if by that term you mean everything that will make your plot dramatic. That would be pretty tough, not to mention extraneous, to sum up in a single sentence. You need to decide what the chief argument/conflict consists of and sum up what makes it dramatic in terms of key events that will spike the interest level of an audience.

Will every concept appeal to every person? No, of course not. But you have to have a reasonable understanding of your audience, the genre you’re working in, and the commercial viability that has made such stories do well within their given genre.

Understanding human nature is a part of that, and this comes under that vicarious experience we were talking about.

Let me get my “Larry” on for a second here and see how I do at putting this in his terms….Ahem!

There are two basic buckets that vicariousness can fit into. We’ve touched on those buckets already, but I’m not sure a “touch” can make us understand just how deep they really are. (How am I doing so far?)

Bucket #1: we will label WISHFUL THINKING. Into that bucket goes every fantasy, dream, and hope of human behavior. It’s a positive thinking bucket. It’s ultimate goal is wish fulfillment.

Bucket #2: we will label NIGHTMARE THINKING. Into this bucket goes everything we dread might happen to us in the human condition. It’s ultimate goal is prolonged suffering and finally death.

If you think about it, every dream we have while in the subconscious state of sleep falls into one of these two buckets. And for some reason, good and bad are appealing to human nature on some basic level. At any given point in our lives, in our thinking, our thoughts and feelings are attracted to some base goal, or horror, that could fit into one of these buckets. So we are using the same basic approach to structured thinking as story structure.

The tent poles are similar to each bucket. Both excite, stimulate, draw our attention. And if either experience is rendered well enough, they become powered by that locomotive called CURIOSITY. In both cases, we want to know the outcome.

Think of experience as a scale, on one side is success, on the other failure and death. Every human emotion is in between, or hanging on the eventual outcome.

No, it isn’t everything that goes into making a story great, but it’s everything about how a story makes us feel. And in terms of the audience, that’s the final outcome of everything else that went into the soup. Emotional response, delivered vicariously through the rendered fabric of your story. And without a strong emotional response, everything else is just ingredients not doing their ultimate job.

Did I leave anything out? Let’s see, one can’t be Larry without throwing in an airplane analogy, so here goes…

If emotion is the engine that propels a jet plane across the Atlantic, without vicarious experience, your story is just sitting on the Tarmac with no place to go and no force to energize flight. The pilot never came out of the restroom, and the passenger, who are your audience, want the money back they paid you for wasting their time. They just want to go home now and watch the news. It’s late. Too late, my friend, for you. Your story just tanked a big one!

With apologies to Larry for trying on his jacket :)

Robert Jones April 5, 2013 at 7:02 pm

Almost forgot…this being based on an earlier conversation with my brother on human behavior, emotion, and the duality of the human psyche. And yes, I really did work Larry’s buckets and structural premise into the conversation, which seemed to fit only too well. But the ultimate goal of any work of fiction is to understand there is a fine line between the two buckets in terms of protagonist and antagonist.

And the core dramatic conflict stems from the duel once you get these buckets clashing…or rather, the strong emotions on both sides of that emotional fence.

Larry April 5, 2013 at 7:34 pm

@Robert – well stated. The jacket fits you well, thanks for taking the buckets in hand on this one. L.

@Sara – your story is killer. Stay in struggle… anything that complex and layered, with that much inherent potential, requires several rounds and a few throw-downs before you know you’re winning. Worth it, too. L.

Kerry Boytzun April 5, 2013 at 8:24 pm

@Sara
Glad I could help. Keep moving forward. You show determination and tenacity. The point of the journey IS the journey.

Best,

Kerry

Andrea April 6, 2013 at 3:10 am

I think it takes courage to write a novel with a dramatic core that runs through the whole story like an invisible red line that ties it all together. What I mean by courage is that you have to subtly put into that dramatic core a lot of own thoughts (arisen perhaps from the research you did) and even own experiences, and this is not easy because it somehow feels as if you put your heart and mind on display to the whole world. But IMO the more your own soul (= what really troubles you about the whole story) hovers over the whole plot the less likely it will turn out as an “the adventures of….” – episodic read.

Matt Duray April 6, 2013 at 5:20 am

“A story driven by Concept is the antidote to episodic.”

When I first read Larry’s Story Engineering book back in 2011, I skimmed through the Concept chapters because I thought to myself, “Well, my idea is already fully formed, I don’t need to evolve it any further.” Back then, it really was still just an idea. I had plot points and character arcs and themes but there was a vital piece of the puzzle missing; a CORE story. My core story changed at the Midpoint, because that’s what’s supposed to happen at the Midpoint, right? The story changes?

But at the beginning of March I read the post titled A Quick Case Study In Concept, about a reader who had submitted a Concept Questionnaire about his story The Drug Dealer’s Revenge. I saw the Questionnaire in full and, like I do with everything on this website, I applied it to my own story… and found there was something wrong. Something needed fixing. The Questionnaire forces you to focus not only on what HAPPENS in your story, but on what the CORE problem is. My protagonist faced a problem at the First Plot Point, reacted to it… then faced a different problem at the Midpoint. A related problem, but not an escalation of the core problem. That’s how I see episodic vs non-episodic: related vs escalated.

So I studied the Questionnaire, read the Concept chapters in Story Engineering (properly), and hammered on my own concept for a week. The story didn’t change a great deal, most of the elements were the same, but now it was focused. Streamlined. The problem is now set up and then introduced at the First Plot Point, then escalates at Pinch Point One, the Midpoint, Pinch Point Two and peaks at the Second Plot Point, to be resolved in the Resolution. Focusing on concept and structure will help you avoid episodic storytelling, make no mistake.

That last one – structure – is key, too. Starting with a strong concept and then structuring my plot points around that has made deciding ‘what happens next’ so much easier. Take your concept – which should, by definition, include your FPP – and decide what the Midpoint and SPP should be. You already have a core story right away, that reaches through most of the novel (remember, it needs to be set up and resolved at either end of the novel). Then decide how that can be escalated/compounded at the Midpoint and two Pinch Points, which deal with the tricky ‘rising action’ of the second act/parts 3 and 4. Now I’m at the stage where I’m breaking down the story into sequences, scenes and beats. From the FPP I have two or three scenes of pure reaction, whether that’s running from, hiding from or being scared of what’s occurred. Then two or three scenes leading up to Pinch Point One, two or three scenes responding to that, the same amount leading up to the Midpoint, and so on. As Robert McKee says in his Story book (and I paraphrase), “beats make scenes, scenes make sequences, sequences make acts, acts make the story.” Methodical, yes, but it works for me. I haven’t written a single scene yet, but my novel is already focused, mission-driven and definitely NOT episodic, all because of a strong concept and understanding of structure.

And if you still need help on deciding what happens next, deconstruct a film that is similar to your story. Last weekend I deconstructed a violent Korean classic called Oldboy, and the Tom Cruise blockbuster Minority Report (which, funnily enough, Sara mentioned in an earlier comment). Two very different films that share similar motivations as my protagonist at the FPP – they need to find someone. Create a beat sheet, summarising each scene with one or two sentences, highlighting the plot points. In Minority Report, Tom Cruise spends most of the scenes between the First Plot Point and Pinch Point One running, pretty much. Not addressing his problem at all. That’s not episodic – he’s essentially running FROM the FPP and TOWARDS the first Pinch Point. This informed my own story to the degree that I now have scenes in place which follow the same general mission-driven scenes – general being the key word here; as long as you work from a generalised beat sheet, you shouldn’t produce a carbon copy of the film. Deconstruct several films in this way to discover similarities. This has helped me to determine both what should happen in each scene AND what should happen in each Part. And because each Part is already separated by a Plot Point which sticks to the core story, I’m avoiding the episodic approach entirely.

I hope this technique helps you as much as it has helped me.

Zoe April 6, 2013 at 7:40 am

I’ve definitely had the issue of trying to fit too much into my concept. I have been trying to cement a concept so that I can build a story from that, but really I need to cement my core dramatic conflict and build the concept from that… then build the story. There’s been some major helpful comments on this thread for me, thanks.

So concept revolves around the core dramatic story, but I still don’t understand what the aim of concept is. Is it to benefit the writer as a tool to write from and therefore be very defining… or is it more of a sales pitch statement with an aim to imply the core dramatic story without giving too much away? Or some combination of both? I suspect/hope I will find the answer when I re-read some of Larry’s posts and a few chapters of story engineering this afternoon.

Loved to see you getting your ‘Larry’ on Rob, great job – down to the helpful use of CAPS TO MAKE US REALISE THIS IS IMPORTANT it was brilliant! I agree completely with everything you have said. And the beauty of our world is that what falls into each bucket is very different for everyone, what might fall into the nightmare thinking bucket for me might be in the other bucket for someone on suicide watch. I wonder how many stories we have read which started from the seed of an idea from a dream or nightmare the author had?

Larry April 6, 2013 at 7:42 am

@Matt — very nicely done. It’s great to see how deeply you get it, you’ve tested it, tried it, and now you feel it. Watch what happens next, when you write, polish and then sell your story. Proud of you. L.

Kerry Boytzun April 6, 2013 at 7:49 am

Matt Duray said: My protagonist faced a problem at the First Plot Point, reacted to it… then faced a different problem at the Midpoint. A related problem, but not an escalation of the core problem. That’s how I see episodic vs non-episodic: related vs escalated.”

Matt, I think you’re saying that escalation means to “build upon” the previous scenes by increasing the tension, either moving the character further along his path or getting more stuck depending upon what Act the story is in. Using the term “related” may be confusing to some as an escalated scene IS related to the previous scenes…it has to be, or it would be a scene out of left field. A scene that would not be relevant.

To me, episodes are not related to each other other than the characters sharing the scenes. The scenes themselves are not related to each other in terms of meaning. One watching a movie or reading a book, where the private investigator stops at a news stand to check the latest newspaper for a classified ad, but then has a conversation with a stranger on the street who tells him something interesting–but the conversation is never used later on in the story. Thus, the conversation wasn’t relative, and in my opinion not related to the core story (core story is retrieve the hostage for ransom…the bad guys communicate through the classified ads–no phone or email). Thus this scene needs to be cut.

Some may challenge me that I’m arguing “semantics”, but I disagree. The spirit of my comment is really about the words we use, and words are the blood of our work, yes? We’re Writers, and we use words…especially for novels. So it’s very important to be specific on the meaning of our words so as to not confuse anyone or send them down the wrong path, even when our intentions are golden.

Matt, I’m no professor at this and am just putting forth what I intuitively feel is a good addition to the EXCELLENT post and advice you wrote. I mean it! That was a great post. I really like your idea of deconstructing films to see what works in what similar ways. In addition to that, I suggest people deconstruct a film or book you did NOT enjoy, not because it wasn’t your type, but because you got annoyed or frustrated due to being confused at where the story was going or not, or just got bored and was “waiting for something to happen”. Comparing lousy films to great ones is very educational. I learn far more from a poor film than a great one.

It’s like watching a beautiful house vs. some whack-job shack being thrown together. The weird shack that doesn’t look safe to be inside will teach you more about mistakes than the house that has no mistakes.

Best,

Kerry

Larry April 6, 2013 at 7:58 am

@Zoe — hi… will try to help. You said: “but I still don’t understand what the aim of concept is.” The primary goal of a concept, which can indeed manifest in multiple layers of strength, is to add a single, starting, fascinating kernal of something that will intrigue and compel. The concept of Kentucky Fried Chicken is 11 secrets herbs and spices. The concept of American Idol is allowing total unknowns to take a national stage. The concept of The Davinci Code… well, pick one: Christ didn’t die on the cross afterall; the Catholic Church is hiding and killing to protect a 2000 year old lie; Christianity itself is based on a lie; Leonard Davinci painted secret cult messages into his work… all disturbing ideas, all conceptual ideas… and NONE of them are the story itself. The are the conceptual CONTEXT for the story.

The concept does not have to BE the story. Here’s an example: the concept is “a boy is born with the ability to read minds, clearly and immediately, and he can’t stop it, he goes through life knowing everything everyone around him is thinking, always, can’t turn it off.”

I submit to you that this is interesting. Compelling. But… is it a STORY? Not at all not yet. We haven’t given this kid something to DO (a goal to reach and/or a problem to solve), we haven’t given him an antagonist, and we haven’t given him stakes. Think of a concept as a “killer situation or possibility” that needs a story attached to it. Then make that situation into a “what if?’ question.

Concepts come in various forms. Sometimes writers actually DO have a story idea that ISN’T a concept, but believe it is. Like this: “What if a woman falls in love with her boss and must stop her husband from killing him out of jealous rage?” A story, yes. But it’s not conceptual, there isn’t that kernal of fascination and compulsion that SITS ALONE, apart from the story.

Now, let’s make it conceptual: “what if the man involved, the lover, the target of the husband’s jealous rage, is the President of the United States? The concept: “What if a man plans to assassinate the President because his wife is having an affair with him?” Or, to take it even further away from out “story” and have it sit there simply as a concept in search of a story: “What if the President’s mistress has a jealous, murderous husband who finds out about their affair?” (Not the same story yet… instead of murder the husband might go to the press, then the President’s inner circle has HIM killed to silence him… different story, same concept basis… we have room to play with our concepts to discover the BEST possible story there.)

See the difference? The mission of concept: the creation of a fresh and compelling stage upon which a story will unfold. Even if the story is designed to show us real people in perfectly normal situations, it works better when you can bring something conceptual to it. In successful novels and films, it’s almost always there. Hope this helps. L.

Zoe April 6, 2013 at 9:14 am

So the aim of what I put into the concept as a statement is not to tell the core story, but to tell the possibility of my core story through the dramatic and gripping situation it presents? Or something along those lines.

I think I have played with my concept so much and been more and more excited by the dramatic bar raising in tension its given me that I am happy with the core story as it is now. I just need to put that heighest level into words as a concept. Should be easier now as I think I am getting there, thanks for the helpful words.

Matt Duray April 6, 2013 at 11:16 am

@Larry – thanks a lot, it’s great to know I’m on the right track, because it’s taken me a while to get there. And you’re right, I FEEL it now. If a scene comes to me, I instinctively know which Part it should slot in to, or if it fits at all. But it’s taken a good couple of years to reach that point, and I’m absolutely still learning.

@Kerry – Thanks for your response and compliments. You’re right – that sentence was a little off and could be confusing. Our words are our weapons, and I misfired. Perhaps I should have clarified that I was still speaking about the FPP and Midpoint, not the scenes in between – that the Midpoint was only loosely connected (‘related’ – I used the word incorrectly) to the FPP, instead of being a continuation (an escalation) of it. If the FPP was a father, then the Midpoint was a second cousin twice removed, instead of the child it should have been. It wasn’t a cause and effect, but a side step, not caused by what came before it, as if I had two stories stuck together, with different goals. When I made that Midpoint the FPP, my story benefited enormously.

I also agree that deconstructing movies that you don’t enjoy as well as ones you do is just as valuable. The Liam Neeson movie Unknown comes to mind. I liked it… up until the Resolution. I was deconstructing it in the cinema (I can’t help it) and everything up until the Second Plot Point was entertaining. He had to find out why someone was pretending to be him and why his wife was going along with it. When he found out the answers at the SPP and then launched into the Resolution I found myself asking, “So? Why should I care?” Without being too spoiler-ish, his mission for the Resolution was to protect someone who we hadn’t even seen up until that point. I wasn’t emotionally invested in the climax at all. Whereas a similar film, Collateral, absolutely nailed it. It’s great to analyse a book or film that works, but equally so with one that doesn’t, so that you avoid making the same mistakes.

@Zoe – the way I approached my concept was to include:

– the set up
– the First Plot Point
– the antagonist
– the stakes involved, or how the hero will suffer if he fails
– his mission going forward from the FPP

Granted, my ‘What if?’ question stands at 86 words with four commas and the need to take a really deep breath before attempting to utter it, but the dramatic platform is laid out entirely. The stage is set. Which is to say, any core drama can be traced back to that concept. Not every twist and turn, revelation, plot point and subplot of course, but in terms of the core drama, the antagonist, and the hero’s central motivations going forward, definitely. I think you’re right when you say, “So the aim of what I put into the concept as a statement is not to tell the core story, but to tell the possibility of my core story through the dramatic and gripping situation it presents?” For me, that encapsulates what a concept should be. Anything after the FPP should only be implied in the concept, not stated… I think.

A good question to ask yourself is: Does your own concept intrigue you?

Sara Davies April 6, 2013 at 1:07 pm

What ended up happening for me, was that I “pantsed” 80,000 words, and didn’t pursue a clear “What if?” question…but more of a what if what if what if what if what if what if what if what if what if what if what if what if…until there were four or five different concepts mashed together in parallel plot lines with fifteen or twenty different characters and their brothers…probably half a dozen of whom could be the star of his or her own book.

I narrowed it down to one character who seemed like the one I could sustain enough interest in to write about her for the necessary length. I like some of the others, too.

If it were going to become a series, it would be the kind of series where everything happens concurrently from different viewpoints. Every character is responding to roughly the same set of circumstances, but they experience different challenges, have different agendas, and understand what’s going on differently.

I thought about, and tried, doing it that way…different stories, braided together – like the “Game of Thrones” series where each chapter is about a different character, and they are all interrelated in some way, but each has a separate trajectory. I finally narrowed it to three characters who seemed the most interesting, and even that didn’t work very well.

As a reader, I actually find a multiple POV format to be pretty frustrating and distracting. As a reader, I want to be immersed and invest emotionally in the story of one character who has a couple of satellite buddies, not jump from person to person hoping one of them will solve his or her problems. I don’t like having the narrative flow interrupted. Every time I get taken outside the story to switch gears, it is that much harder to get back into it. So, looking at it from that perspective, while it might seem like a cool device to write mutiple POVs, how much fun would it be to read it, even if I could get it right?

Not sure what to do with the unused threads, other than save for later.

Robert Jones April 6, 2013 at 2:55 pm

I just watched the Syd Field screenplay seminar video. Larry mentioned him as where he first heard the plot and/or pinch point, and I recalled them there too but it has been a while since I read that book. Field seems a little outdated in a couple of places, but was interesting to hear what he had to say.

His framing of the FPP is where the true story begins. He also mentions figuring out what your main character wants, their “dramatic need.” Which is an interesting way to look at the goals of the protagonist and antagonist. I am assuming that dramatic need is launched by the FPP, in spite of their lives up to that point of launching…AKA, the dramatic conflict?

Also, I have to chime in one more time on emotional impact. My wife wanted to watch Nights in Rodanthe, based on the Nicholas Sparks novel. Once again I found myself subjected to a romance where two people are heading on a journey, a relationship…and as soon as they find themselves madly in love, one must tragically die. I hate this format. It’s akin to propagating an entire mythos that love and pain are one and the same. But thinking about how the dark and the light of the emotional spectrum are so similar, so equally provocative to an audience, it’s interesting to see how people keep returning to this type if story just to get their guts ripped out again and again.

If you read philosophy, or even some spiritually oriented books, will often talk about good and evil, light and dark, being different hues within the same spectrum. And the Sparks of the writing community certainly are proving when the two are dished up on the same plate, there is money to be made. Not my cup of tea, but I thought I would toss this out there for thoughts and comparitive opinions.

@Sara–I can see your story going in any one of those directions you mentioned. But having thought it out in such detail will enrich your story on every level. Syd Field mentioned working out characters to the point of family, friends, even past lives and astrological charts. Your world is very layered due to the work you’ve put into it. You haven’t wasted your time if the results come across as a realistic world. George Lucas has tons of character information that never made it into Star Wars. Characters with hardly any dialogue have been developed as far as worlds, race, family–I never knew just how intricate it was until I worked on some licensed material from one of those seemingly insignificant characters. Then you watch the movie and none of it is in there for that character. He looked almost like a throw away…or could have been. But working so much history into a very finite number of hours for the films, all but that core story becomes ultimately extranious. On the other hand, Lucas, when writing, knows exactly how that character will react based on race, culture, backstory. The franchise was not a waste of time. And one must question if it would’ve become so populate if he had not put the amount of work into his characters, his universe?

You WILL figure it out. And knowing those extra layers will enrich everything else…even in a slimmed down format…should be your strength to endure.

Speaking of what you said about coming at the same story from different character view points, someone was recently telling me about a sci-fi/fantasy author who wrote a series, then came back to rewrite the first three novels from a different character’s POV. Can’t think of the author’s name off hand. But there are always possibilities to expand on anything in terms of future novels. Nothing need be waste, if you feel it is strong enough material to keep your universe going.

Sara Davies April 6, 2013 at 4:52 pm

Anyone who hasn’t seen the 2002 cyber-thriller “Cypher” (Jeremy Northam, Lucy Liu) should definitely see it for its plot construction and concept. (Netflix has it on streaming). It won the Grand Jury Prize for Fantasy at the 2003 Fantasporo Film Festival, but was billed as a “cyber-thriller.” It’s kind of arty, so you have to be a little patient, but conceptually it’s at a level akin to “Minority Report,” “The Matrix,” etc.

@ Matt: That is a great explanation.

@ Robert: Thanks. I will figure it out eventually. Spent 12 hours on my outline yesterday. Still have gaps. Wondering if it can work to interrupt a first person narrative with third person narratives that would give other characters’ perspectives. There would be two chapters like this, one in the first part of the book, one in mirrored later section, one chapter only for each POV. Otherwise, just integrate as backstory.

I have a hard time with stories where a major player dies at the end…unless they have achieved something important, died for the greater good or whatnot. No random “life sucks then you die” ending can work for me. If want to have that experience, I can just live my normal life, know what I mean? Stories have to be better than reality, create order, negate randomness.

@ Larry: What makes one a story idea and the other a concept is the introduction of dramatic conflict? The difference between, say, a love story about a waitress and a bartender, and a love story about a Jewish waitress and a bartender who is a former member of the Aryan Brotherhood, whose group wants him back, tracks him down, and firebombs the restaurant? That kind of difference?

Zoe April 7, 2013 at 5:54 am

Thanks Matt, that kind of checklist is exactly the thing I was going for, very helpful. Thanks to that and the several other posts here like Larry’s clarification on the aim of concept, I think I have come to the conclusion that its my core story I need to work on as opposed to my concept (although I do still need to work on the wording).

My concept definitely intrigues me and it’s a concept which checks off all of those things you mentioned that leads me to my issue – which is – I don’t know how its all going to end. Now that I am happier my concept does what its supposed to do, it’s the end of the core story I really need to work on, I am really starting to realise the full potential of the concept as a writing tool.

I have taken to studying other works to find out how I can best craft my ending. For example in the ‘War of the worlds’ the resolution to the worldwide issue of the aliens isn’t fully completed by the main character, but in the film I noticed that he is the catalyst and resolution to his own core story within the bigger picture. He is the resolution through a couple of moves: throws some grenades at a tripod to get its attention so he can get up there in it with his daughter, plus, as he’s being sucked in to be harvested by the tripod he releases a grenade inside it that takes it out and finally he points out to the army when the shields have gone down. But its that balance between the bigger picture story (man vs alien) and his own core story (to keep his family alive) that my concept has lead me to realise I need to work on. With so many stories going on at once, my concept is a good reminder of what the core story is that I need to resolve, which is great… now I just need to decide how!

Also, glad to know I am not the only one who has a fair few words in the concept as a sentence to get all of the potential of the story into it.

Matt Duray April 8, 2013 at 12:03 pm

@Zoe – no problem, glad I could pass on some experience. I’ve only harnessed the potential of an intriguing concept in the last three weeks, but it’s truly enlightening when you nail it down. Best of luck :) I was a little anxious when I sent my questionnaire to Larry because of the length of the concept – it really is 86 words long. I thought he’d say I’d have to shorten it, but he didn’t. Truth is, if I took some words out, the full potential for the story would be compromised. Ultimately it’s a tool for you to focus your attention on what happens in your work, so don’t worry too much about the length.

You raise an interesting point with how to craft an ending. Knowing what the core story is will certainly help because you’ll be aiming to resolve THAT story. But then you have to balance that with all the other story threads. You’ve just reminded me that I haven’t yet fully decided on how to end mine haha. My anti-hero doesn’t conquer his inner demon until the very end and as I’m constructing everything else the tension is building up to a huge finale… but I need to be careful so as not to overshadow the core story being resolved. By the way – I had to rewind the “NO SHIELDS!” line in War Of The Worlds several times when I first watched it, for some reason I couldn’t figure out what he hell he was saying!

Jason Waskiewicz April 10, 2013 at 8:22 pm

This article describes the exact weakness of all of my writing to date. I always had a vague idea of how my novels would end. (And that’s 9 really bad novels.) However, the middle was fuzzy. What I would do is invent episodes and characters almost as filler until I either got bored with the book or felt it was long enough.

Sometimes the books involved travel, and that made it less obvious that I was not doing well. When I wrote a few that were locked in place, it became really obvious.

For me, outlining has been a great solution. I could see the “filler” at a glance. Now that I’m finally writing the book off the outline, there are no “filler scenes”. However, I am discovered that I ramble a bit as I attempt to share information. On a good note: this will be a lot easier to fix when I edit.

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