The Real Skinny on Conflict: Five Links and a Sample Chapter from “Story Physics”

Since we’ve been all over this subject lately, I think this is timely. 

A reader contacted me about going deeper into an exploration of the differences between IDEA… CONCEPT… and PREMISE.  The differences are huge, and critically important in context to story development. 

And yet, in casual conversation – even among agents and editors – the lines blur to the point of being synonymous. They may not know or care… but we absolutely should.

The following is a chapter from my new writing book, “Story Physics: Harnessing the Underlying Forces of Storytelling,” which comes out in June (Writers Digest Books).

Below that there are five links to prior Storyfix posts on the topic.  Use the Search bar (to the right) to find even more.


– 7 –

Idea vs. Concept

Wherein we acknowledge that there is a difference, and it is everything.

Every spring, professional baseball players gather in Arizona and Florida for Spring Training.  Every single day they drill on basic fundamentals: fitness, batting practice, game situations.  And every day they improve.

This chapter is like that.  We’ve discussed this topic before, but now we’re going deeper, to a professional level of understanding.  This is a potential deal breaker.

I had lunch recently with a writer friend who is awesome.  She brought her lovely sister, and I brought my lovely and awesome wife—the prevailing awesomeness was almost overwhelming—and over omelets and gluten-free bread we had a grand time commiserating the experience of writing serious stories seriously.

Like most writers, my radar for “what if?” propositions is always rotating, and I got a hit when the conversation turned to the ladies room at one of the area’s hottest bars, the kind where all the women look like they’re on the opening episode of The Bachelor and all the men look like the buzz-cut, cheesy, golf-shirt-wearing guys whose reality television housewives are, for some reason, always chasing down.  It was their story, but it resonated with me as a potential idea.

At first blush it looked like a winner.  There was a time when I might have actually gone home and started writing it.  Because I believed that, if I did things properly, applied the right dramatic forces in just the right places with just the right touch, I could make any idea into a winner.

Hear this: You cannot make any idea into a winner, any more than you can make any kid into a professional athlete, any tune into a chart-topping hit, or any honest Joe into the President of the United States.  An idea that doesn’t have winning DNA needs to be morphed into one that does.

The good news is that DNA is ours to breed into the idea, by turning it into a concept with massively inherent potential.

The ladies talked about a woman who has served as the hostess in the ladies room at that famous local club for the past ten years.  This woman was beloved by all who had washed their dainty hands or reapplied makeup there.  I immediately pictured Viola Davis in an Olive Oyl (not a typo) pillbox hat, dishing out towels and smiles and sage advice for dollar tips.

Oh, the sights she must have seen in the room, the stories she must have heard.  She, it was suggested, should write a book.

A book of anecdotes and lessons learned.  An episodic book without an over-arcing plot, which I would have to totally dream up. (See how easy it is to be seduced by the belief that this type of story can become a novel?)

Not yet discouraged, I went in that direction.

A “what if?” descended on me: What if this woman heard something in that bathroom that she shouldn’t have heard?  What if she overheard whispers about someone in the bar who wasn’t supposed to be there, doing things that shouldn’t be done? And what if something happened later in the evening inside that bar, something bad, lighting a fuse toward the elimination of anyone who knew who might be at the center of it all?

Suddenly Viola Davis (I find myself always casting novels with stellar actors, even at the very first spark of inspiration) was the heroine running for her life while working to help the bumbling detectives find the bad guy before they found her in a dumpster.

I pitched the idea to the table, and resoundingly heard what most writers hear when they spout an off-the-cuff idea, especially to people who aren’t writers (although one of the three is, in fact, a great writer): Oh my God, you should write that!  Really!  That’d be so cool!

It was breakfast, mind you.  No alcohol involved.

Notice that while the initial idea energized them, it was the addition of a concept that got them out of their chairs.

We brainstormed for a while—always a fun exercise—taking it through the First Act to a proposed First Plot Point, at which time the food arrived and we turned our attentions elsewhere: to why some writers drink and others simply go mad. Sadly, these sometimes seem to be the only two available options.

But notice what happened here: The original idea was quickly subordinated to a conceptual story idea.  I had no guarantee that the ladies would have been as enamored with the latter as they were with the former, which—wait for it— wasn’t a story at all.  It was just an idea.  A door opening to a path that led to something else.

We had to turn the idea into a concept before it was worthy of consideration as a project.  And that, dear writer friends, is precisely what you need to do each and every time an idea explodes in your brain, before you start writing something from that idea.  Getting to the point where you can recognize this paradoxical moment is entirely the point of your writing journey.

This is the most common mistake I see: manuscripts based on ideas, rather than on concepts.

On the way home my wife asked me, “So, are you going to write that story?”

I didn’t have to think about it.  My answer was a firm, no-looking-back no. The reason had everything to do with story physics.  They just weren’t there for me.

Ideas are just that, and nothing more. 

They are aromas, not foods.  Promises, not deliveries.  Seeds, not gardens.

Ideas acquire value when they point us to something more substantive than whodunit gratification, when they put you, the writer, into a place that transcends immediate gratification and allows you to go deep and wide.

Ideas should scare the crap out of you.  Or, at least, they should excite you to the point of obsession.  When you link a compelling “what if?” proposition to a deeper realm of time-tested passion … now you’re on to something.

That’s the story you should write.

And while that first idea of the bathroom hostess did indeed lead to an idea about an innocent woman overhearing something dark, that idea was, for me, still void of anything magnetic or compelling enough to keep growing it.  I had no real passion for the ladies room at this club, nor for the social dynamic that becomes the social arena of such a story, which was the story’s original energy.  I’ve never been inside a crowded ladies room full of preening cougars—and yeah, that sounds kinda interesting, I admit—but who am I to write this story?

If you happen to like it, have at it. It’s all yours.

If I’d been harboring a thing for ladies restrooms … maybe it could have flown.  But no.  Perhaps someone who does have that closeted fascination could have grown that idea into something workable.

Great stories demand our passion.

Not that you have to have lived every story you tell.  What I’m saying is that you should bring a longstanding, or at least overwhelming desire to have lived it.  Starting a book on the heels of a breakfast conversation is like getting married after a conversation in the checkout line at Costco.

It happens.  It never ends well, even in the most romantic of fiction.

The desire to live vicariously in our stories needs to be matched by our passion for the landscape upon which the story will unfold.  That’s what makes it work.  In Nelson Demille’s Night Fall, for example, he brought back his iconic ex-military hero to investigate the hypothetical cover-up of an exploded airliner (this was based on a real case, TWA Flight 800, which exploded over the coast of Long Island on July 17, 1996, claiming 230 souls and igniting conspiracy theories about a cover up).  There was only one reason to do that: Demille had a passion for it.  Perhaps he was furious about what he thought was the truth.

What floats your boat?  How would you live your life differently if you could start over, what would you do, who would you be, where would you go, what would you embrace? These are the questions a writer should ask before taking any “what if?” idea seriously. Consider hatching an idea from your passion, and then develop a concept that allows you to stage it and explore it.

This crystallized for me one morning while reading about a new J.J. Abrams television show, Alcatraz, in which criminals who seemingly disappeared from an island fifty years ago show up in present-daySan Francisco and start killing people.  They’ve traveled through time.  They might be ghosts.  But the dead bodies they leave in their wake are real, and they must be found and stopped.

Now that interests me, both on a “what if?” level and a time-tested passion level.  I wish to hell I’d thought of it.  Time travel is one of the most intriguing premises I can think of … and yet, I’ve never written a time travel story.

Hmmm.  I should look at that.  Because the passion for it is there.  All sorts

of thematic, dramatic possibilities await within this realm.  All I need now is a killer “what if?” proposition that keeps me awake at night.  (A side note: Alcatraz tanked, cancelled after one season, despite the strength of the idea and the craft of the people who made it.  As William Goldman said, “Nobody knows anything.”  That said, we should pursue that which interests us to the point of obsession and leave our passing fancies on the shelf.)

The books I’ve published were all, to some extent, grounded in something I have an obsessive, passionate interest in.  Something I know.

Don’t jump too fast at your “what ifs?” 

They are like items on a menu … the picture is appealing, and you know it’ll taste good.  But will it nourish?  Will it fill you, does it check something off your bucket list, will it give you focus and joy and challenge?  Is the idea worth a year of your life?  Do you want to be remembered for this story?

These are the questions you need to ask, relative to the initiating idea, before you ask “What if?”

Write from a place of passion and obsession and innate, time-tested curiosity, a place where issues collide with the conceptual, set in an arena that fuels the drama as much as any characters you can place within it.

Write the story you should be writing. If a story is worthy, you should be feeling the story physics tugging at you even before you write a word.

Copyright © 2013 by Larry Brooks. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means. 

Story Physics is published by Writer’s Digest Books, an imprint of F+W Media, Inc.


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55 Responses to The Real Skinny on Conflict: Five Links and a Sample Chapter from “Story Physics”

  1. Kenneth Fuquay

    Since my first thought that I want to write a novel, I have spent many hours/days/weeks/months reading, studying, devouring books, and writing (just getting comfortable putting words on a page). I have found your advice and experience to be a wealth of knowledge. Better yet, I think I get it. The huge frustration?…finding that idea that can be elevated to the level of KILLER CONCEPT…and that I think I can execute. Nobody said this would be easy, but wow.

    Rock on.

  2. Matt Duray

    I’m really looking forward to this new book, I’m excited at the idea of going even deeper into my story than I am now. If that’s possible. And I’m also excited to hear that you are intrigued by time travel stories… because I’m planning on sending you the concept and plan for my own time travel story soon. The idea for it hit me out of nowhere and a couple of years has passed since then but that original seed still fascinates me. In my search for the best concept and premise in that idea it’s changed a lot (it usually changes after I’ve read your latest post) but each change strengthens the plot, stucture, characters, and my own awareness of where to go with it. I can’t wait to sit down and write the thing but I’ve vowed not to do that until I know exactly which story I want to tell.

    Posts like this edge me closer to that. Matt.

  3. Robert Jones

    This is very true. I’ve had a lot of ideas over the years–since I was a kid actually. And I’ve learned it’s a drudgery to work on a project you can’t sink your emotions and passions into. I’m sure it’s been said hundreds of times (I can’t recall where I first came across it), but you should live with your idea a little while before diving in. Many of them seem intriguing when they first explode inside your head. That initial spark always comes when an idea drops out of the blue. It feels like a gift, maybe even fate, that’s dropping it into your lap. In reality, I think it’s just the writer/creator within that dives on these notions and tries to sort them out, make them into something.

    If pressed, I’ll bet a lot of people could pick up the “ladies room” idea and turn it into something more interesting than it first appears. Personally, I’m with Larry on this one. It sounds like a “B” 1980s movie to me, complete with lots of mirror cleavage and car chases once the action gets rolling outside the ladies room scenes. And since writing a novel can take a good chunk of time and devotion, I’m developing a nervous twitch just thinking of tackling that story.

    Alcatraz sounded like such a great premise. For me, it was episodic in the extreme. A new killer each week who was once a prisoner in Alcatraz seemed like a video game of rounding all these guys up and not enough intrigue into where they went when they disappeared, or how they were coming back–which was the core story. The 30 second ending of locking them up, and that there might be a reason in the odd glances the prisoners exchanged, was not enough. And was it just me, or did the investigators seem more intrigued about “who” each new killer was, their background, etc., rather than trying to find out any sort of answers, interrogating prisoners, examining theories, time travel, a real antagonist for crying out loud–all the stuff that might’ve made the average person want to know more??? That’s a lot of hours to plod through trusting the writer has better things to come.

    I don’t watch a lot of TV shows. It was because this was done by the creators of “Lost” that I tuned in–on top of it presenting an interesting concept. Lost, whether you like how it ended or not, was some decent story telling and characterization. It was also one large story, each episode presenting another chapter, not a series of chase scenes, which is what episodic writing does. It presents another mini-adventure within the context of the overriding premise. Also why most TV shows burn out for me rather quickly.

    I never made it to the end of the season on Alcatraz. Nor was I surprised to hear it wasn’t renewed. The creators “lost” their winning formula, and counted on the premise being good enough to keep everyone glued. Everything else, including characterization, took a back-seat to the mini-adventure/chase.

    Hence, you can have a winning concept, but if you don’t establish forward movement, have a good villain, or decent execution of those other core competencies, your winning concept is going to fall with a resounding thud.

  4. Sara Davies

    The women who meet in the restroom have invented a code based on what sounds like typical ladies’ room conversation (banal stuff about husbands, boyfriends, children, parents, siblings, travel plans, holidays, event planning, jobs, co-workers, school, clothing, hair, weight, PMS, therapy, phobias, blah blah whatever) and gradually, the towel-lady recognizes a pattern. She realizes something else is going on here.

    Sorry, that’s all I’ve got at the moment.

  5. Nip the idea/concept/premise in the bud, before it becomes a mediocre book because I couldn’t bring the right level of belief and ardor. I need that.

    Awareness that I’m trying to force an idea is a life-saver.

  6. Christine Lind


    The Webinar was PHENOMENAL. I have a question that comes out of learning and growing more…

    I believe I got the Concept and Premise thing finally down. With so much attention on getting our Concept right, for me, it wasn’t until I got my PREMISE right that I was able to get my context for my story. (My feedback from you on first questionnaire was: great concept but lame story, and you were right, of course.)

    It wasn’t until I expanded my Concept into a “Killer Premise” (or at least what a premise is) that I was able to give my hero a story (well, we’ll see when I send back my 2nd Questionnare!). My mistake was also that I had written my story’s main plot from the sub-plot WHICH is actually my CONCEPT instead of searching for story based off of a premise. I think I fell down at my Premise, is what I’m trying to say, and that I didn’t give Premise its due diligence.

    MY PREMISE has the main plot. So it wasn’t until I wrote a real Premise (which is what I’ve been working on), was I able to now move my story further up the grade scale (I hope, and we’ll see).

    Am I too far off here?

  7. Dave H

    Yes, the webinar was very helpful – and between that and your feedback on my first questionnaire I think I’m coming to see my hurdle for believing I have a real story is:
    1. A crisp, compelling concept
    2. A strong hook out of the gate
    3. A potent first plot point, launching the hero’s journey
    (these three being seductively ‘easy’ .. but not nearly enough, I’m seeing)
    4. A powerful midpoint twist, where the stakes are surprisingly increased
    5. A ‘hero is shattered’ pinch point, delivering a punch in the gut/all-seems-to-be-lost (that, at least *seems* to be ‘required’ in my early-learning view…but I’d be interested to hear variations on that)
    6. Some powerful recovery, toward the climax, where the hero reaches deeper and either wins or finds other resolution
    7. A climax that answers all the open questions and ties things up in a satisfying way.

    I know I’m just re-hashing what’s probably ‘the obvious’ for many on this site – but it’s helping me to just articulate that as the way I resonate with your statements about idea and even strong concept as not being nearly enough to feel like a solid starting point.

  8. Zoe

    I wish I had a passion for time travel… maybe I could even figure it out and throw myself over to June 18th, enabling me to read story physics this afternoon. Would be nice lol

  9. Dave H

    On the whimsical side of time travel… you’ve reminded me of the SNL sketch with the aging and not-so-super heroes who are losing their strength…like Future Man who could now see 1 second into the future….

  10. @Dave H. – just wanted to congratulate you… you SO get this. Keep going, you’re now “in it” fully. Grab that special, OMG won’t-leave-you-alone story premise, wring the CORE STORY out of it… and make it happen. L.

  11. Rebecca

    A general question on story structure:

    Is the story structure outline different when the story is a “failure” story, about a hero or team who tries to succeed but ultimately fails? I feel like the structure itself would be the same, with the same basic milestones, but the roles of the two middle parts would be reversed, because the ending outcome is reversed.

    Look at a story like, say, Braveheart. Setup and FPP are clear: introducing Wallace, his love, and the conflict between the English and the Scots, w/ the FPP being when his lady love is killed and he takes revenge against the English, a ‘can’t go back’ choice which launches his quest for the rest of the movie – his crusade against the English. Then it seems like Part 2 is all about showing success and establishing the idea that Wallace and the Scots might win (rather than the traditional floundering/failing hero of success stories).

    While I’m no expert in Braveheart and it’s been a while since I’ve seen the movie, it seems to me that the midpoint would be when the writer reveals that the nobles aren’t all behind Braveheart, that in fact many would rather side with the English (which fits with the goal of the midpoint – revealing new information which changes the context of the story. Now, without the support of the nobles, we see the first hint that the Scots could fail). So it seems like the midpoint in ‘failure’ stories provides the first hint that they might fail? Grrr…unfortunately while I can think of other stories that fit this pattern, it’s been a while since I’ve read them, so I don’t remember their midpoints. For instance the first that comes to mind is Mists of Avalon, or many of the other Arthur stories, with the first half being a ‘positive’, ‘they’ll succeed’ attitude and the second half being how things come apart more and more till they totally degenerate. I’m sure many of the Greek myths are like that too.

    Back to Braveheart, Part 3 seems to fit that vein of things beginning to fall apart for Wallace, even though he’s trying to hold things together. (I guess this would be like Part 2, where the hero, who has seemed competent and successful so far, begins to fail? This is why I was wondering if the parts were reversed for a ‘failure’ story). I’m not sure what the 2nd plot point in Braveheart would be – the only thing I can think of would be when Robert the Bruce (the one noble Wallace treats as a symbol of what Scotland could be) betrays him, raising the emotional stakes by hitting him on a much more personal level than the betrayal of the other nobles and in essence destroying his dream.

    After that, I feel like Part 4 is pretty much what you’d expect – you know they’re going to lose, even though you still hope they win.

    What do you all think?

    • @Rebecca – Sara’s response (the first paragraph, at least) is very close to what I’d say to you about positive vs. negative nature of the story. Just like the blueprint and beams of a house, and the science that tells where the main weight-bearing beams should go and how deep the foundation is dug… those beams and that hole in the ground are completely not dependent upon the use of the building that will be occupied. Could be a slaughter house or a church, the science of the structure is EXACTLY the same. More important, though, is and understanding of the CONTEXTUAL missions of each of the four parts of story that are delineated by those milestones (setup, response, attack, resolution). Writers who are search for an “exception” to these principles (there really aren’t any, any more than there are exceptions to gravity) can take relief in the fact that they are FLEXIBLE, and even OPTIONAL at the author’s choice, but there are risks and consequences in both cases. Hope this helps. Context is everything. Structure is mostly pace and exposition and character arc. It’s all there to help you OPTIMIZE your story, it’s never there to take anything away from story. To suspect or believe that, because one’s story doesn’t “fit” is like a kid who wants to swim across the river because his friends did it and lived through it, and/or he’s in a hurry, or sometimes lazy, or just plain defiant… and he might just drown, when there is a perfectly good bridge not far down the bank. Larry

  12. Thank you, Larry B. Can’t wait to get my writer-paws on the new book. LL

  13. Nik A

    A bit of offtopic, but I’m curious about the story structure when there are multiple protagonists in a novel (and they are equally important, each of them with its own story).

    I mean, the story milestones are somehow clear, when there is only one proganist, but if they are many, the story of each of them should have its own mailstones and sometimes it looks like e.g. the FFP of one of the heroes is a Pinch point for another, etc.

    So, it will be great if you Larry decounstruct a novel with multiple protagonists – for example the new J. K. Rowling’s “The Casual Vacancy” or George Martin’s “Game of Thrones” (e.g. the first book). I think it will be very helpful for all of us.

  14. For what it’s worth, the Alcatraz TV show concept didn’t grab me one bit. For me, there has to be a SCANDAL of sorts. Something that you go, “that just isn’t right or fair–I can’t believe they got away with that”.

    Alcatraz TV Series was about somebody from the past killing someone in present time. Sorry but so what? People get killed every minute–but do they DESERVE IT? That’s what I wanna know, and it’s the ones that “got away with it”–that are the most interesting to hear about.

    Can your Story Concept PUSH a BUTTON? If not, keep trying. The BIG concept pushes buttons. Emotions are hooked big by pushing buttons. Your button is pushed when you feel your emotions go off. Buttons can also be so called “positive” as in: hope, exhilaration, infatuation, love, caring, and whatever else.

    I remember Tony Robbins on tape talking about emotions in a similar vein. It was to create inspiration, for yourself to motivate yourself to ACT. I recall it was something like, “How would you feel if you learned you had lost $1000 bucks today because you went to the new Starbucks coffee shop and they just handed out a grand to the ten thousandth customer–who was right in front of you?” You’re feeling maybe a bit jaded that it could have been you?

    But what if you let that customer get in line in front of you because you were a nice guy? How do you feel now? What if that person just butted in line in front of you–you said “hey!”–and he said “deal with it, loser”! Then this guy wins, and looks at you after he gets his thousand buck$ and says “thanks, LOSER!” How do you feel now, chump?

    Still asleep at the emotional wheel? What if you come home later that day and find out that you’ve been robbed and your secret safe was broken into and your cash and gold coins are gone–you just got ripped off $20 grand! Oh, and your pet cat is dead. So’s your dog. And someone spray painted LOSER on your wall and there’s a Starbucks coffee cup turned upside down with the coffee staining your white carpet.

    No…doesn’t even get you breathing hard? Look around you in real life. What is scandalous? What do you CARE about that is being taken advantage of–is wrong? This can be at any level: society, family, history…

    The movie The Blind Side had the scandal element in it. The Big Guy having to sleep in the cold gym was a scandal to the lady that decided to rescue him (I forget the names).

    Good Will Hunting had scandal in it in multiple layers: Will, the genius hero didn’t want to use his brains for “the system” (get a job in the “Collective”–work for The Man or Establishment). Will didn’t want to Conform because frankly–he could see much deeper than most people and he saw how people conformed to a rotten system of so called civilization and he wanted no part in it–even if it cost him his own quality of life. As a result, Will had no dreams because what kind of genius dreams about the pseudo collective success that require conformity? However, Will wasn’t using his innate talents, as some would say, his “God given gifts”–and NOT using his talents–was a Scandal! There are multiple layers of Scandal going on in this movie and that’s why it did so well.

    Will’s speech to the NSA-Govt. is a classic:
    Why Shouldn’t I Work for the NSA? (Good Will Hunting) – YouTube

    John Grisham’s early work was full of scandal. The books that had no scandal were snoreville and just didn’t do that well. Playing for Pizza was an example of “good writing voice” and a big name gets what would normally be rejected during the “elevator pitch”.

    The Help had scandal.

    You don’t have to have scandal but you need something like it–to push buttons.

    If you don’t push the buttons–you’re going Down…


  15. MikeR

    I trust that the production staff at WP Books knows to do a large first press-run of this book. I’m confident that you will enjoy very good sales, and deservedly so.

    I knew – instantly – that you were really on to something very important when I saw the term, “engineering.” I snapped-up a copy. And, now, I think you’re onto something equally important once again. Well done.

  16. Sara Davies

    @ Rebecca:

    I’m pretty new at this, but I think the function of the plot points is independent of the content of the plot points. A positive or negative story outcome is not relevant to the way plot points work to move the story forward. As I understand it, the FPP announces the core conflict in the story. The Midpoint reveals that the context is not exactly what it appeared to be at the outset, in addition to empowering the main character to become proactive in pursuit of the story goal. The 2nd PP forces a resolution, regardless of what kind of resolution. Every plot point addresses the core conflict, as does the ending. Every story poses a question at the FPP, regardless of what the fight is about. It presents a problem and asks whether the hero will overcome it or not. Will the hero win or lose? Every story ends by answering that question: yes, no, maybe.

    The nature of the conflict, the setting, the questions raised by the conflict, etc. are creative variables that have nothing to do with how the story itself works. I am grappling with this, because those ingredients are emotional, distracting, misleading, and can obscure the goal of making a concept operational. I may be wrong, but I’m beginning to get the sense that “story engineering” is concerned only with the working and moving parts of the machine we call a story. Whether that machine is yellow, pink, blue, or has an umbrella on top has nothing to do with how it works.

    • @Sara – appreciate your coaching to Rebecca, and your continuing involvement with this journey.

      Also… you said this: “I may be wrong, but I’m beginning to get the sense that “story engineering” is concerned only with the working and moving parts of the machine we call a story.” I couldn’t disagree more. Any more than (keeping with the analogy I used in Rebecca’s response) than that bridge is only concerned with connecting two shores. If the bridge is built properly, the people who built it are totally consumed with three things besides mechanics: safety, longevity and (this being the one I think you’re missing), AESTHETICS. Bridges can be among the most beautiful of all architectural constructions on the planet. Books are assembled with those images. Poems written to them. That beauty is a product of symmetry and strength, and ALWAYS a DELIBERATE outcome of design… by the BRIDGE BUILDERS. Who ALWAYS begin with, adhere to, and leverage, the principles of building great and functional bridges. The only time “story structure” is ONLY concerned with the working and moving parts of a story is then the AUTHOR is only seeing that level of opportunity in them… because they’re new to it, because it’s not a natural concept for them, or because they simply don’t like some wise-ass writing teacher telling them something that contradicts the romantic (and naive) notions of their high school writing teacher back in the day.

      If the “working and and moving parts” aren’t working, the story can’t be beautiful or even efficient. It’s a bridge that will crash into the water. It’s a person who has no moral compass or compassion. Because they are the PRINCIPLES OF BEING in whatever application you apply. Just because they are challenging doesn’t license stuffing them into a limiting definition. That’s just say, that’s denying one’s self the upside and the potential of what they offer. Like driving a buggy behind a horse instead of a powerful vehicle, because one doesn’t know how to tune the damn thing up or can’t find the gas cap.

      You’re HALF right when you say “Whether that machine is yellow, pink, blue, or has an umbrella on top has nothing to do with how it works.” That half says that ANY story can be taken higher by the application of these universal principles (isn’t it the height of arrogance, and/or naivety, for someone to contend that they are immune to gravity, or aging, or even the power of love in the world, that those things “limit” them?). The half that’s wrong doesn’t seem to grasp this: the story WON’T work, or won’t work WELL, without them. So when you say it has “nothing to do with how it works”… it has EVERYTHING to do with how it works. These principles are the SOLE DETERMINANT of how a story works. Show me a story that contradicts that… I don’t think you can, and if you can, you will be the first. Show me a writer who continues to fight this off, and I’ll show you a) an unpublished writer, or b) a 92 year old first-time novelist. L.

  17. @Kerry — great stuff. Scandal… equals story physics. It’s all about, as you say, pushing buttons — fear, anger, empathy, hope — story physics all. At the end of the day, everything about storytelling, all six core competencies, link back to story physics. They are the point of what we plan, the target toward which we write. L.

  18. Sara Davies

    @ Larry:

    Yes, I see what you’re saying. I’m not saying aesthetics don’t count, just that those considerations won’t help – I should speak for myself, I suppose – won’t help ME if I don’t get the structural aspects to work first.

    For ME to do that, I need to ignore aesthetic concerns FOR NOW. As I try to plan a new story, I’m coming up with ideas that I find myself wanting to force to be a plot point, but then step back and realize they don’t fulfill the functional requirements of that plot point. I can use those ideas, I just can’t use them THERE.

    But I see what you mean. Sure, no one’s going to want to cross an ugly bridge. Great architects blend art and functional design seamlessly. It takes skill to build something attractive that also doesn’t fall down.

    The only analogy I have from MY life experience is planning artwork. First, collect reference materials, decide on the subject for the piece, build the panel with 1x2s and mahogany door skin, sand and fill, coat the surface with gesso, lay out a grid to transfer an image from a photo to a larger scale, etc…all that stuff is like planning out the plot points of a story. It’s PREP WORK. It’s what has to happen before the painting can start.

    I don’t want to waste another year of my life writing 80,000 words without having a clue where I’m trying to go…just as I don’t want to waste a $20 tube of paint trying to decide what the image is going to be while I’m painting. That approach CAN work for some people, but it doesn’t work for me.

    I want the analogous grid in place before I write. If I get caught up in thinking about color or texture or lines or dimensions or cropping, etc….that’s premature. Some of it’s integral – I know what I’m trying to say with the story I started to write. You have my stuff, and if you’ve looked at it, you probably know I got a couple things right and lot of things wrong…because I’m still trying to figure out what the major milestones DO.

    The next stage is to understand how to make them do what they need to do in a way that optimizes the creative or emotional effect I’m going for…which I think is what you’re getting at…but that’s too advanced for me right now.

    I understand the structural stuff has to line up with the creative intent of the story. For now, I want to make sure those parts 1) exist; 2) do what they’re supposed to do.

    Sounds like what you’re saying is that the structural choices ARE aesthetic choices. For people who know what they’re doing, I’m sure that’s true, because they’re at a level where they can blend those two things without having to think about it. I have to think about, am barely ABLE to think about it, and get distracted by thinking about how to make it pretty.

  19. MikeR

    I don’t find any conflict between engineering-process and an aesthetically pleasing design. Engineering is what gives you a framework that will remain -above- the river the whole time. With that aspect taken care of, you can focus on making the whole experience beautiful. Without it: beautiful, aesthetic, wet junk. (Or: an “oddly” beautiful bridge-to-nowhere, upside-down.)

    I find it most helpful that you’ve presented a straightforward frame for “what works,” and you’ve clearly shown how the points on that frame (1PP, 2PP, Mid, etc.) will interact with one another. That’s very liberating: it gives an organizing guide to your thoughts, and obliges you to consider more than one point in story-time.

    I, too, am taking the “bathroom story” challenge, and I find myself playing paper-dolls with ideas. I’ll take one and hang it experimentally, say, at the 2PP position. Then, step back and consider what that means for the other points. “Okay, if I decide to use this here, then at 1PP I would need to establish (something), with (something-else) at the MP … now, can I now please come up with six possibilities for both of those (somethings).” Now, your brainstorming has a purpose, and a set of criteria.

    I’m also finding myself looking at several character-arcs, including that of the poor unfortunate who gets bumped off (yes, in the bathroom). One of them is the hero’s primary story, but the other ones are also in play and will affected by however the story turns out.

  20. Robert Jones

    @Nik A–In doing something as complex as “Game of Thrones,” the basic advice most teachers (and pro writers) give to beginners, is, “Don’t do it.” Not until you’ve got some experience under your belt. George R. R. Martin is an experienced writer of both TV and novels, and he says he could’ve easily gotten lost in a book that size if not for a lot of trustworthy friends who helped to keep him on track.

    However, I’m not a teacher. And far be it from me to squash anyone’s dreams if that is your passion. Just remember those family trees in the back of the book and take note of just how thoroughly Martin planned for all those characters.

    That being said, the entire story still holds to the core dramatic story–that of the Lannisters and the evil that they do in order to kill the king and claim his throne. There is nothing in that story, no character, that doesn’t stem from that premise.

    There is one basic evil queen who wants to rule, and therefore is the chief antagonist. She may be close to her brother–who loves her and fathered all the kings “supposed” children, but even the brother is secondary to the queen, as is all the other scoundrels. And there are quite a few.

    There is one hero, Eddard Stark. Again, he has his family, who play a large role, but he is the chief protagonist who tries to discover the queen’s secrets and what happened to the king’s hand beore him. Stark is an unwilling hero (he is dragged squarly into the middle of a conspiracy, complete with murder and suspects aplenty), but he is the voice of reason, and it is his journey that brings about the course of all that follows, including the rise of his son Robb near the end.

    There is one chief subplot, that of Dany and her brother. But even there, their story stems from the core dramatic plot because they are the last descendants of the king before Robert and want to lay claim to the throne. There are many who want the throne by the end of the book, but theirs is the backstory of what came before, and will no doubt play a role in the series as it goes on (I haven’t read any but the first book so far).

    There are definite endings to both the main plot and chief subplot, though they bring more questions than answers. Still, the point a very strong arrow onward, that this story isn’t over yet. Robb Stark has his victories, he rises in his father’s place once Eddard’s journey is finished. Dany comes into her own as well, completing her character arc and bringing back the dragons. But just try to end a story as a novice as Martin did and the audience will say it was no ending at all. It takes skill and experience to aim for the type of ending we see here because it clearly doesn’t cap off the villain. The queen may have an unruly brat on the throne who won’t do her bidding once the king is dead, but she’s accomplished nothing but a war. Another ending that is really a beginning. The subplot of “winter’s coming” and the mysterious Others, was hardly touched, except to get it moving in an interesting direction and leave it hanging. Try that and readers will be crying “Off with your head!”

    Also–and this is a pet peave, in part, but a legitimacy in terms of writing–after the first two charpters of getting the readers interested, Martin then gives us three chapters in a row that hit us with so many names and lineages that I lost count. I was just hoping I didn’t have to remember all that for the story to make sense later on. But I was also bored for those three chapters. I don’t care who the writer is, if they go too far, I’ll close the book. It was only because these books are quite popular that I pressed onward for one mosre chapter. And once having gotten beyond those chapters, I enjoyed the story quite a bit.

    In terms of what Kerry said, there was a lot of asking, “Why this,” and “What could go wrong next?” The baddies really were very annoying in that story. They certainly got under your skin. But again, for any writer that doesn’t have a following, and/or experience, those three name-bogged chapters in a row would just send readers tossing the book aside in confusion. Or boredom. Don’t try this at home, people. For most of us, this would be like passing out sleeping pills to a theater full of people and challenging them to stay awake until chapter 6 or 7 when things heat up again. The writer may have created an impressive back story, but he doesn’t have to bore me with it. Give those names and history in smaller doeses, preferably while something else interesting is going on. Or better still, once we meet those characters, or their clan, when we have a visual of them instead of mostly names and deeds. There was nothing in those three chapters that couldn’t have been sprinkled in more gradually. To me, this was the book’s–and the writer’s–biggest flaw.

    Aside from that, the core dramatic concept remains throughout. And in spite of having a lot of characters, they are all from one of two camps: Stark and Lannister–or, hero and villain. There is one villain and one hero. Yes, in spite of what happens to Eddard. Everyone else is just a memebr of the cast who play a part in this drama as things heat up. Every other mention of past, or portents of future events, is all subplot and backstory.

    If you can see it from that POV, you’re a long ways toward understanding structure. If all the characters have blinded you–not being able to see the forrest for the trees, if I might be permitted that cliche–then you probably shouldn’t be attempting to write a story with a cast that large, and deffinitly not a series of that complex a nature. At least not just yet. Go back and follow the main thread if this is the case.

    Hope this helps 🙂

  21. Sara Davies

    What Robert says. I need to keep it simple. Complex story lines with multiple viewpoints make it impossible to see how it works. That’s why reading “Asher Lev” was so great…I finally got it, because I could SEE it. You can’t miss the plot points in that book. The midpoint falls like an anvil dropped from 30 feet onto a wooden stage.

    Trying to learn this stuff has me at wall-punching levels of frustration. Someone has to pay. Is there a parking lot outside a bar where I could go to kick the crap out of a trucker?

    I’m struggling to find a process, so when I talk about it…I’m talking about a search for a reliable process, a method that can be repeated…not about the outcome or goal.

    George R.R. Martin drove me away from his books by never finishing a story line he started. I got to book four and wish I’d never read any of them. They kept me up into the wee hours. Cruelty with no payoff. I’ll never read another one, because I know he won’t deliver. He’s fired.

    To make matters worse, my husband, resident genius and superlative human being, great artist and excellent designer, better than I am in all possible ways….decided that HE’s going to write a novel, and now I think his writing is better than mine, too. I’ve learned to tolerate living with his brilliance for over 20 years, but at this point…if I didn’t love him, I would despise him.

  22. @Sara… now THERE’s a novel in waiting. L.

  23. Shaun

    Isn’t the woman in the bathroom story a rehash of what you posted back a a few months ago? I remember reading something very similar on here. And if so, Is Story Physics going to embody a lot of what you’ve already posted on here or is it going to have information we haven’t learned yet? Just curious. By the way, preordered mine. Looking forward to it.

  24. Robert Jones

    @Sara–You mean every book in Martin’s series continues to rile without a solution? I’ll probably go back for the second one, but I’ll really have to see how I feel as it continues.

    Coming back to Kerry’s post once more, I think if “concept” is the most important thing to nail down while plotting, “emotion” has to carry the same weight when actually scripting. There are many fair to midling stories (and writers) who have held large audiences simply by grabbing their emotions.

    I believe it was Sol Stein’s beat sheet that came with his First-aide For Writers program that included a space next to each scene summery in your outline that posed the question, “What is the strongest emotion you can create with this scene?”

    Wise words. I never forgot them.

    But I think that applies to the plot on every level, including the character arcs of the hero and villain. How are the obstacles that hit thero going to effect the heart of the reader? How will whatever scandal the villain perpetrates piss off the reader?

    If it’s relevant, resonates a strong emotion in our own heart, then we have struck a vein that should be milked for all it’s worth.

    If George R. R. Martin does nothing else, he creates this resonance on a large scale. And though Eddard Stark is everything good and noble in that first book, you just know when the queen says, “When playing the game of thrones, you either win, or you die,” that it’s time for him to stop being so noble. When he continues to play the good guy in a world full of backstabbers, it really becomes irksome to the Nth degree. But that was very good for the writer. It worked. He’s still selling, has an HBO series–everything good is happening for Martin because he plays that emotional harp very well.

  25. Sara Davies

    @ Larry:

    I think it’s been done. It’s a movie called “Amadeus.”

    Suppose you’re in concept development with something like this….

    What if a woman kills her husband for his blockbuster manuscript, passes it off as her own, but is overheard bragging about the murder in the women’s restroom of a high end restaurant…as a result of which the towel lady threatens to expose the truth if the killer won’t sign over all the royalties?

    That’s pretty obvious and pedestrian, right? Or would you say it depends what you do with it? A movie has probably already been made about a plagiarized best-seller. The story idea is as obvious as a story about a restaurant employing undocumented workers, where there is drug trafficking.

    What do you do next to make it more interesting? Do you have a conscious, intent-driven process, or do you just let it float around in the back of your mind for a while and see what comes to you?

    @ Robert:

    Yes. That’s what I mean. Martin thinks of the worst possible thing that could happen to every character, makes it happen, then wanders away to talk about something else. 4 books into the series, this pattern is not cute.

  26. @Sara — the concept also drove the film “The Words” from last year… I wrote about it here:

    As for the restroom angle, vaguely familiar.

    As for your question about floating… yes, I float… but I force the float and reject what doesn’t go with the flow (the principles), so to speak. As for “depending on what you do with it,” I don’t ascribe to that, I don’t think “any” idea can be made compelling, and that the strength of a concept itself, islolated from execution, is in fact the strongest asset a story has. My opinion. I like BIG stories, I guess… even when they don’t appear all that big. Our job is to make them massively powerful. L.

  27. Nik A

    @Robert Jones,

    Thank you for the answer. Very Impressive 🙂

    Actually, I don’t attempt to write a complex story like “Game of Thrones”, I just tried to deconstruct it for fun a few months ago.

    I did realize that the whole story is about the confrontation Starks vs Lanisters but I had problems with the pure engineering – defining milestones and parts of the book.

    I tried to define arcs and hero’s journeys for all plots and subplots and I ended up with some strange situations, e.g. it looked like one plot is still in its middle part, while another plot (ok, call it subplot) is in its third part. Or, one hero is still in “Wanderer” stage, while the other is already in the “Warior” stage of his arc. So I wanted to discuss more general about dealing with multiple layers (plots, subplots) and character arcs and how to make them coherent.

  28. Robert Jones

    @Nik A–I believe that for any given story, the milestones will (or should) reflect from either the hero, or villain. In GOT, that would be Eddard or Cersei. It doesn’t matter at what point the other characters come in at, though, if their lives are planned carefully, there must be some FPP that sent them on their journey and other milestones that follow. However, this is not their story. No matter how heroic they may seem, or evil, those “story milestones” will only apply when (and if) they get to be the chief protagonist/antagonist of the book.

    For example–in the lives of my hero and villain (their back-story), I have gone so far as to identify life changing events and shifts. I took this business of story engineering and physics to the limit. I’m currently finishing up my villain in what I hope will be the final adjustment to my outline before I send of my questionnaire to Larry. If physics are the rules that govern life, then bringing a story together is to emulate life. And though my plot is not overly complicated, I wanted to understand exactly why my hero and villain have come to the point where they are butting heads. I want the reader to understand both sides of that argument as well.

    Now, when you say you are looking at the milestones, and attempting to plave them for all the supporting characters, you are right in your assessment that they all seem to be at some different level. Because the true milestones that are evolving the current core story are the only ones that will come full circle for any given book. Even if that book projects us into the next one in a series, as with GOT, the milestones are there to assist with the current plot, that core conceptual journey we’ve been yapping about so much here.

    If you attempted to complete it with every supporting character–something that very well could be done, you then leave the reader asking whose story is this? You would also probably end up with an even larger book because more scenes would be required. You would be working on a story that would be 4-6 novels combined–so why not make them into a series?

    I started reading books on writing and talking with writers even when I was working as a full time artists. And I had some pretty fumbling attemts by the time I decided to first sit down and attempt a novel. I too was a fan of adventures in large numbers back then. So I naturally had too many characters of importance that first time around. They were all fighting for their moment in the spotlight. The reactioni got from friends and pros alike was that I had at least enough material for three differnt novels going on at once–and none of them were currently working. When I finally picked one to be the main character and made it his story, much of the other characters became extranious. They were cut down, some were even cut out entirely. The process became so tangled that I eventually put that story aside and began another one. I still like the basic premise of that first story, and may come back to it eventually. But it would need to be reconstructed from the ground up. And I had been over that story so many times, I just couldn’t do it any longer.

    Today, I’m not sure I would want to tackle a story of that size. I learned a lot from trying it though. But it was learning the hard way. It was like an eighth grader skipping high-school and diving into an advanced college course and failing because I had skipped all the learning stages in between. Since then, I’ve worked on a couple of novels and some short stories. The novels were still work, but they were both much better expeiences with a single hero and villain. Both are decent fixable stories, which I am currently working at. However, I’ve been basically writing three act plays and passing them off as novels. Thanks to Larry and, I believe I am adding the final touches that will make them complete.

  29. Robert Jones

    @Sara–Ah, you’ve got murder in your mind for your poor hubby, I see…LOL! But getting beyond that, if the the battle for “brilliance” were to take on an epic role, there could certainly be a clash on many levels, a life-journey worth telling.

    In life, the idea that all people are created equally isn’t exactly true. To some, everything might come easily. Others have to struggle. Is it all genetic, older souls, what? And society teaches us a have/have not mentality. Yet, if no one strived to break the barriers of what we call our highest discoveries, we would have nothing to strive for, no goals worth attaining. We would become complacent in our beliefs. Which is exactly what is happening to many. And instead of waking up and trying, most would rather feel envy and hatred toward those who “have” what they don’t.

    I think there will always be teachers, older souls, and this mix of knowledge and abilities is for a good reason. But we’ve lost the give and take somewhere along the line. It’s never enough to teach, or learn. We need to have it all right away and screw everyone else on the ladder. Toss them off and make it to the top, that’s all that counts. But what will you do once you get there? I think if you jumped over the step along the way, the best you can end up with is a nose bleed, or a balancing act atop a pedestal that isn’t very solid beneath you.

    Somewhere amidst all this is a story. One that might be a parable for modern times. It doesn’t have to involve murder. I think if you take two very modern people, a man and a woman, who can’t see anything but the goal society has set for them. Gender doesn’t matter any longer. Love is an illusion, passé. They’ve lost themselves in the lie. The challenge would be to find themselves, who they really are. Can the lines of hero and villain blur? Or do we need a clear cut choice where one goes too far?

    Either way could be fun. But I think I would make it a serious story (maybe even a sad story if one ended up learning at the cost of the other in some dire way), not a “War of the Roses” type of deal where you end up lampooning it.

  30. Sara Davies

    @ Robert:

    It’s a Cain & Abel spin-off, for sure. Anyone can identify with that, because no matter who you are, there is always going to be someone “better.” Even those who do experience high levels of success often feel it is an empty victory. But I’m willing to let religion sort out how we are all supposed to feel if we are well-adjusted, and save the anti-social rabid venting for writing fiction. Everything in its proper place. Go ahead. Report me to the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Geniuses. It’s hard to carry resentment for someone who also has the temperament of the Buddha.

    But I think I just learned something! Strong emotions are a resource for generating story ideas. That worked in painting, too…I just didn’t expect it to work with this. I don’t know why not. It seems obvious now. Duh. Maybe because the distance between emotion and images is shorter than emotion to words.

    My little ball of rage has me parachuting into the stadium with C4 explosives wrapped around my body, ready to suicide bomb the Superbowl. I’ve also just figured out why, when you read those news items about people who massacre their families, the perpetrators don’t just get a grip and move out like a normal person.

    What if a man as brilliant as Einstein and as talented as Mozart refuses to look for work for ten years, allowing his wife to support him at her job as a restroom attendant in an upscale restaurant, while he continues to outshine her in all her creative endeavors? What if, when he crosses the line and writes the novel she wanted to write, she water boards him to death with the restaurant’s towels, and stages the murder to look like a drug-related execution? What if she publishes the book as his widow, it becomes an internationally acclaimed bestseller, she receives sympathy from all of their friends, and takes the money to start a new life in a tropical paradise?

    A story is probably one of the best containers for violent fantasies outside the therapist’s office. And possibly both more therapeutic and more lucrative. Food for thought.

    But you can’t get too autobiographical or it becomes self-indulgent. And you can’t moralize or it’s alienating.

    I had already started a story about a restaurant that is sentient…occupied by the spirit of someone who returns from the Afterlife on a mission. So that’s going to be my restaurant story, although mine is a diner and doesn’t have a fancy restroom. It does have black velvet paintings and a jukebox that only plays Van Halen’s “Jump” or Dolly Parton & Kenny Rogers singing “Island’s in the Stream.”

  31. Sara Davies

    @ Larry:

    Thanks for the link. Great post. I will definitely check out those movies. “The Words” sounds great.

    You’ve said it before – that having a strong concept is key – but I’m grokking it in a different way, because it does seem less appealing and more challenging to dress up a pedestrian concept than to launch with a strong one.

    Maybe it’s possible to brainstorm away all the obvious ideas and bust through to something new. Or maybe it’s possible to take two under-developed and unrelated ideas and pair them to create a hybrid that has juice.

  32. Robert Jones

    @Sara–Writing really is theraputic. You learn a lot about life and yourself while doing your fictional renditions. Somehow, by taking it to that level where it isn’t autobiographical (as you stated), that being a step or two removed, gives just enough distance to allow for a fresh perspective on things.

    Hopefully my suggestions didn’t rile you in a bad way. I think that we are all here to learn, and through sharing our experiences, we teach as well–hence the give and take. The best and wisest of folks should realize that experience is always teaching us something.

    I like your sentient diner setting. I’m trying to picture what the regular clientelle would look like. Elvis impersonators and urban cowboys/girls? If it ever gets turned into a film, maybe David Lynch could direct.

    I may have mentioned my brainstorming technique before, but when I get stuck on pedestrain thoughts, I make lists. I list everything that comes to mind. Once I’ve exhausted my brain by listing all the typical things, it might take several days to come up with a few more fresh ones. Once they begin showing up though, they are different from my first thoughts.

    A lot of writers will say your first thoughts have the most energy. I’m not sure that’s true with first ideas though. And I litterally have to list them to be rid of them sometimes. It’s like empying the trash file inside my brain to make room for some new ideas. It’s not a new thought. I read somewhere that some writers did this. It works for me when I hit that wall of big nothing and I come up shorthanded.

  33. I recently found your site and I am finding it very informative. I don’t see any articles about writing scenes, though. Have I missed it, or have you not covered this topic?

  34. Sara Davies

    @ Robert:

    What? No, your comments didn’t rile me at all. Not that I’m not more or less chronically riled by everything…but I recognize it as a personal problem. I’m the sort of lunatic for whom everything is raw, unfiltered, relentless in its assault, and requires an enormous amount of emotion-to-thought conversion processing. Good thing I live with someone who possesses the calm of a Navy Seal and the grace of the Dalai Lama. No ogre can retain the will to fight when faced with that kind of monolithic integrity. But I digress….Where were we? Listing sounds like a good method. My mental trash can is overflowing because my mind never shuts up, but it seems like a brain dump of obvious solutions would eventually yield alternatives. Sometimes there is a Wall of Nothingness. Sometimes the unexpected can shake things loose. Change of venue. Dreams. Like in the movie “Stranger Than Fiction” when the Emma Thompson character can’t figure out how to kill Harold Crick, but at the last moment gets a flash of inspiration watching an apple roll into the street? When I was painting (not to sound like a broken record)…I would start with an emotion, then decide how to describe that with pictures, usually a collection of a few images with a combined metaphorical effect. For example, a person lying in the bottom of the bathtub on one panel, next to another panel depicting a school of fish. I can see how emotion can conjure up little narratives. Someone cuts me off in traffic, and I take my fury home and write a scene about road rage and stalking. I feel better, and no one gets arrested. The trick would be able to conjure that level of intense feeling at will, to meet specific requirements. I can’t do that. Can you? Can you work yourself into a frenzy, on demand, method-acting style? I might be in a frenzy at any given time, but can’t count on it being the right frenzy for the job. One approach might be to keep a file of narratives to be tailored as needed. Revenge scenes. Grief scenes. Etc. Emotional reactions tend to be immediate and intense, whereas thoughts and ideas come later or emerge from those feelings. I can’t stop the emotions or the constant sensory onslaught, but have to wade through that stuff, take it apart and rearrange it to get to the conceptual level. Other people might naturally depart from the conceptual level and need to work to get to their emotions.

  35. MikeR

    Funny, but my present take on the bathroom-story really doesn’t have much except a murder happening in the bathroom. But, the protagonist is a bathroom attendant.

    And what my imagination is trying to do right now, is to build a story-arc for each of these characters, including the guy who gets bumped-off (in the bathroom) … who, although he had less-than-noble intentions, was not a stock nasty. He was trying to resolve a situation when his story-arc came to … an untimely conclusion. And why did the murder happen? Well, I’m not quite sure yet. How much or how little the reader will know of this, or at what time or in what way, I don’t know yet; haven’t decided. The protagonist doesn’t know most of it; he will discover many things.

    But, I enjoy stories like that, in which multiple story-arcs play off one another in the sense that several people are on-the-move although they don’t all know that something has brought them on a collision course. Only one arc gets to be the primary story, only one gets to be the hero of the tale, but that hero’s going to discover some of those other tales, and find out that he’s been manipulated in/by some of them. He finds himself very much in conflict with things he didn’t know about, and which had no intention at all to conflict with him – with things that fully expected to ignore him and to be ignored by him, if he had seen them at all.

    I also know it’s going to take place in a real setting (the hotel burned but the train station is still there), although it’s not historical fiction. An excuse to spend time in the city-history library … in my home city, where the story will take place. The vicarious experience for the reader should be worth the ticket.

    And, “thank you, Larry,” because I’ve never had the experience of -designing- a story before. It was never presented as an -engineering- problem. I’ve never seen the picture such that I could, as I am starting to do now, -choose- or -consider- what might be placed at a particular point in the story; nor could I see clearly how each choice, in turn, must impact other points and times. It feels rather strangely like multiple games of chess in which one is inventing the pieces as well as the game. “Priceless.”

  36. Rebecca

    @ Sara and Larry,

    Thanks for the input! I absolutely agree, I feel like the nuts and bolts are the same for every story, regardless of the outcome. I guess I’m just interested in ‘failure’ stories because I’m trying to write one. And the general structure is the same, even if there are different ‘tweaks’ here and there.

  37. Robert Jones

    @ Sara–It’s funny that you mentioned the actor’s method of getting in the mood to write scenes. I watch a lot of DVD extras that have interviews. I also found something interesting in last Sunday’s episode of The Talking Dead–the discussion program that airs directly after each new episode of AMC’s Walking Dead. They were talking with actor David Morrissey, who plays the Governor (this season’s bad guy, if you haven’t watched). I found two things that he said of interest for writers:

    First, getting to the method he mentioned of getting into the mood emotionally went along pretty much with what you’re saying about switching on emotions to fit the part, or a scene. Morrissey said that all the actors have to create their own space on the set. He listens to music that helps create a certain mood through an ipod. He has photos of family to connect with how he feels about the loss of the character’s family. He also has disturbing photos, war images.

    What came to my mind, in comparison with art, is that we collect (or look up) all sorts of reference for projects. Much like the comparative imagery you mentioned to create a metaphor for your paintings. I’ve used certain images when writing about an object, or a place, but I’ve never thought about images that might evoke a certain emotion. Especially the disturbing war/death stuff. I have marked scenes in my outline, or notebook, with a note of something that happened personally, or a song I heard that might be a soundtrack for that scene to set the mood.

    It has taken me quite a while to get that far in my parallels between art and writing, but they are not all that dissimilar.

    The second thing Morrissey said is something I’ve heard other actors say in terms of their playing a villain. Some actually get defensive when you call their character a villain. They’ve gone out there on a psychological limb in order to understand why the character does the awful things they do. Morrissey says the Governor would’ve been a perfectly normal guy if not for the zombie apocalypse. He says it’s all the circumstances, the pressures, that made his characters “slowly” crack. He cited the death of his daughter, who was already a zombie, as his big inciting incident that really sent him over the edge. Meantime, she’s already dead, he was keeping her chained inside a closet. he was raiding any other survivors he came across, murdering them and taking their supplies–yet he is not an evil man according to Morrissey. Not a bad guy at all, just a survivalist.

    I’ve heard this sort of justification from several actors over the years. And here’s the really key piece for creating villains–if an actor can psych themselves out to justify, even identify, with a murderer, a torturer, a truly sick individual (note that word “sick,” because it can justify almost anything in the entire human condition), then how much more does your villain feel justified that what they are doing is absolutely right?

    After all, they really are sick, or have become twisted on some mental level. And yet, we have to somehow get inside their skin as an actor does, feel their pain, flip a switch that says, “This could be almost anyone under the right set of circumstances.”

    That’s the toughest emotional trick of all. I also think it’s why many villains come across like comic book characters, or just don’t seem very convincing. Most writers know they are bad, or crazy, and therefore do not need justification. But I’m trying my damnedest to see my villain as a real person–even sympathize with him. To see exactly when and how he turned the corner and stopped playing by the rules that govern most of our lives. Even if I can’t accept what he does later, if i can show him as a human up to that point, everything else he does will carry the empathy, the vulnerability of those earlier days, and make his evil actions seem more credible.

  38. Robert Jones

    @MikeR–Sounds very much like what I’m attempting to do. Playing chess is a very apt analogy. I like what you’re saying.

  39. MikeR

    @ Sara, William Shakespeare wrote a -lot- of “failure stories.” Sometimes you win; sometimes you lose; sometimes you die.

    Sometimes (“Les Miserables”) death/failure is the point-of-the-story ending. (Heck, in that story, almost EVERYBODY dies.) Sometimes you just feel that death was the flip of an unfortunate coin. But that’s just how the good-story ends: what matters to me as a Gentle Reader is “the total yarn.” The hero goes into the last battle wondering if today there will be a bullet with his name on it. Sometimes there is. Sux. I can still close the book, quite satisfied. The story is not its ending.

  40. MikeR

    @Robert: Not merely “playing chess,” but “playing chess while making up the pieces as you go” … always staying within ‘the game of chess.’

    It is … it is (light-bulb moment thank you Larry) -EXACTLY- … “the game of engineering.” The bridge must stand, and here’s how to do that. Now, within those rigid and now-understood mechanics, and with the following goals-of-greatness in mind, “it’s up to you. Be great. Or, be practical. Be.”

  41. MikeR

    Urp… I don’t mean to chime in three times in a row, but … when you talked about ‘villains’ and the comments of the actors who play them, it did click: a great many “villains” are exceptionally paper-thin characters. Authors sell ’em short. It’s tough for an actor to really breathe life into them, especially when the story itself is on the edge. “Okay, this story is about zombies. How can I make this ‘villain’ character come alive? Realize that he is a survivalist.” He is true to himself, even if, within the context of the story, that makes him a nasty.

    Many villains are paper-thin, but oh, there’s one exception to me: Hannibal Lecter. NO, not the character well-played by Sir Anthony Hopkins, but the entirely off-screen character who appears in “The Manhunter.” (Watch the film, in the mid-afternoon of a delightful spring day.) This über-villain character is absolutely true to himself, yet absolutely evil. As highly as I regard Sir Anthony, I don’t think that this Hannibal COULD have been on-stage. (And the nine-minutes without-a-cut soliloquy under blue light . . . OMG . . .pure Hitchcock, and, pure character.)

    Otherwise? Sure. “Something Wicked This Way Comes.” Cooger. Dark. Stephen King talks a lot about villains in his definitive non-fiction work, “Dans Macabre.” Highly recommended.

    Gimme the heroes who die. Gimme the villains that are real.

  42. Matt Duray

    Interesting discussion about villians, and I agree with what’s being said – that the best villians are realistic ones. Ones that you could, under normal circumstances, understand. The ‘villian’ in my work in progress started out as the typical moustache-twirling bad guy. But as I evolved his character and the story, I removed his bad-guy habits and quirks and replaced them with a back story and inner demons. Up to the Midpoint it’s perfectly understandable why he opposes my protagonist.

    @Robert – I absolutely sympathise with my antagonist even though, as you said, I don’t agree with what he does (or what we find out he HAS done) later on. Tricky stuff to get right, but then isn’t that the same for any character we invent, to make their motivations and actions believable?

  43. Robert Jones

    @Mike and Matt–I agree with all you’ve both said. The hero should be willing to die, if not, he/she probably isn’t ready to face the odds, make the decisions that they might be called to make under life or death circumstances. And yes, the Shakespearian tragedies are my favorites among his plays as well–although Much Ado is right up there for me as well.

    In terms of villains, it’s very much their circumstances and the psychological effect. I think it could well be about back-story in many cases, but from my standpoint, circumstances can change. Therefore, circumstances will often trump back-story if they are dire enough.

    We could go back to the basics, the idea of having some seed of good planted in your protagonist, and some seed of bad in your protagonist. Those who believe one began morally better, or that circumstances could never make their hero bad, or their villain good, are just fooling themselves. The human mind is quick to adapt. Soldiers in war, no matter what their plans for life, or personal backstory is, are trained to kill or be killed in a matter of weeks. That circumstance certainly trumps the most average, decent of individuals.

    Another example…I remember being in a dorm with a bunch of teenage guys during my first year at art school. We had a life drawing class where the teacher said if anyone makes embarrassing remarks about a member of the opposite sex who is posing nude, they are out of the class. By the end of that year, learning about anatomy, viewing the human body in a different way, the remarks made by those same teenage guys in the dorm about female models–even in private discussions–was entirely different than one would expect. They learned to view things differently in a different sort of environment than most guys that age are exposed to.

    It’s all about what we are taught, the standards of life viewed through the perceptions of surrounding data and stimuli. Either for good, or for ill.

    So even a normal person can change in spite of their back-story if life suddenly goes to hell on them. I also believe many of the so called problems the average person faces would go away for many if so much petty prejudice and hatred suddenly got flushed down the cosmic crapper…but I digress.

    Matt hit that nail very well when he villains are exactly like every other character we create. We need to humanize them first, then, no matter what they do later will carry that seed that this person was once a child with the same hopes and fears as their own children. They might’ve been the friend they grew up with who had an alcohol, or drug-addicted parent. It might even be themselves under different conditions. Isn’t that what empathy is supposed to do?

    If Dracula never had that one love that keeps plaguing him, tormenting him, would Stoker’s creation have survived the test of time? Or would it have been just another bloody “B” horror tale lost to time?

  44. Sara Davies

    @ Mike R

    I like stories with multiple character arcs and subplots, too. But I think that kind of project is pretty ambitious. It seems like at some point all of the characters have to share a common goal.

    For me, the story IS its ending. The outcome makes the point of the story. I’m not satisfied if the destination wasn’t worth the cost of travel, even if the scenery was interesting or beautiful.

    @ Robert

    No one who is a villain believes they’re a villain. More likely than not, they think OTHER people are villains. You know what they say about “the banality of evil,” like the Nazis, who thought rounding up and killing various minorities was a sensible idea that would improve society. The social shift came gradually, incrementally, so that what would have seem outrageous if it were proposed in one fell swoop was acceptable piece by piece. The owners of slaves in the United States felt like keeping slaves was just another day in the neighborhood, justifiable because they told themselves the bible said it was OK. People who exploit others find ways to dehumanize them, but they don’t do it consciously, like “gee, how can I dehumanize these people?” They find ways to regard others as either vehicles or obstacles to their goals, which is what “objectification” means – seeing other people as utilitarian, a means to an end. The most sociopathic roommate I ever had was someone who blamed everything that went wrong on someone else, because he was so fragile and insecure that he couldn’t tolerate the idea of being wrong, or of being abandoned. Anyone who tried to get a little close to him would inevitably be attacked and rebuffed. Fear drives anti-social behavior. The greater the perceived external threat, the greater the reaction or defense. Some people perceive threats where none exist. Or can’t let things go – like in that Seinfeld episode where George Costanza obsesses for weeks about his failure to respond to some guy at a meeting who makes fun of how much shrimp he’s eating, which results in Costanza flying halfway across the country to deliver a snappy comeback. Lists of fears and resentments might be a good place to start? I did this once: listed every fear that had ever held me back in my life, now or in the past – that was 200-300 items. I listed where I thought those fears originated (bad experiences or whatnot) and the behaviors those fears tended to generate. Then I listed everyone I resented from my entire life (about 300 names on that list), what those people had done to me, and finally, what I had done to them. Not fun, but informative. You might try it. It can be frightening to look at one’s own anti-social tendencies and impulses, ways in which we are self-seeking, self-centered, fearful, and dishonest. Anger is an indicator of fear. To write a convincing bad guy, I think you need to allow yourself to see your own shadow. Everyone has one.

    Re Concept Stuff:

    I had what I thought was a concept, then realized so much of it was about inner turmoil that there is no playable dramatic conflict – no antagonist outside the mind of the main character. That can’t work. The opposing force has to be external, the action visible, right? Yeah. Pffft. At best, I’ve got a subplot, a setting, and a narrator.

  45. Sara Davies

    @ Robert: Regarding The Walking Dead – My 14 year old son nagged me into watching that show with him. I don’t like horror, and I don’t like zombies (because they are boring, ugly, stupid, and mean)…but I ended up getting into it because it reflects the zeitgeist so powerfully. I feel like we are living in the metaphorical equivalent of a zombie apocalypse. Think of the novel “The Road.” I think people know we’ve reached the beginning of the end of humanity and of life on this planet. (Saw a horrific news story recently, about babies born dead with severe deformities due to exposure to depleted uranium and white phosphorus. Babies without faces, with one eye, with giant heads, with tiny head and exposed brains, with internal organs on the outside of their bodies, with no limbs, with multiple limbs that might have been arms or legs. I looked at the pictures. DNA tried to do what it does and failed. I felt sorry for God, if there is one. I felt sorry for the mothers of those children who didn’t become children. The dead babies reminded me of eyeless Gulf Coast shrimp caught in the wake of the BP oil spill. But they were human, and although it looked like something out of a science fiction horror movie, it was real.) The Walking Dead is disgusting, but it’s a great show. I would agree that the Governor, while he does bad things, didn’t start out as “bad” but as grief-stricken and terrified, which led to acts of desperation that resulted in him becoming a dangerous person. But everything he does makes sense if you see what’s driving it. Evil is trying to control things beyond one’s control, trying to manipulate the world into coughing up what one wants or believe is needed.

  46. Robert Jones

    @Sara–Great posts!!!

    Social acceptance of the non-acceptible…it really does sneak up on people gradually, those mental zombies paralleled in Walking Dead.

    Everything you said is exactly why my key theme in writing is always about some aspect of fear. Fear is always believing the worst “might” happen. And when it does, it can usually be traced back to a point when that fear found a home in our heart.

    I’ve done those lists of fear and angry circumstances in the past. I’ve pictured the people and events, attempting to dismiss any hold (past or present) they may have/had over me. Often, I discovered these things perpetuated themselves because of some previous fear. I stated before that I grew up around a good many fearful folks. Pretty much everything can be traced back to someone telling me that life is just waiting to swallow me whole, that I might think all these fearful imaginings won’t happen to me but, “THEY WILL!” Talk about sociopaths with low self esteem trying to control people and I’m sort of an expert. Like alcoholics who hate to drink alone, it begins with one sip, and once you allow them in….

    Expect the worst and it’ll happen every time. Maybe not today or tomorrow, but holding onto that type of media induced madness has swallowed most of those people whole who feared it. Hence my “Church of Fear” thoughts that the media has long made a religion of fear–believe it and ye shall recieve it.

    I suppose my current shadow side has developed into someone who can be a bit rude to those who try to impose a popular belief on me with a “wait and see when the excrement hits the fan” attitude. My response is, “You can wait around if you want to. I’m too busy writing about the fates of those who sat in that chair before you.” It’s never pretty.

    Live life. Be happy. Find a purpose you can call your own. Stop being a zombie who tries to infect everyone you meet with the decease your carrying. And yes, most of these people think they are actually helping others by spreading useful information, not a poison pill.

    Talk about live free or die. My life is pretty much like PP2–if you’re not happy, find a way to change it, see life from a new vantage point. Gear yourself up into hero mode and save yourself from being just another corpse. Then maybe you’ll see your way to becoming a service to others instead of just another apocalyptic zombie messenger.

    Guess it was my turn for an emotional rant today 🙂

  47. Robert Jones

    Funny, my spell correction turned “disease” into “decease.” But that’s what happens to all zombies–they just keep on walking and don’t realize they are “deceased” already…LOL!

    I really do need to proof read these thing better. I’m always ranting between doing other things. Then I see the mistakes when I come back to it.

  48. Sara Davies

    @ Robert:

    I think it’s possible to reach a point where doing what you believe and serving other people are synonymous. Art can have liberating effects. If I could get what I wanted out of a creative project, it would be to achieve that. And maybe that’s romantic and lame in some outmoded way. I have no idea, but that’s what motivates me. Seems like art or novels that do that tend to go down deep into some dark territory – not into the land of rainbows and unicorns. There’s a point where darkness becomes light. I don’t know why.

    How it works seems very counter-intuitive. Theoretically, the story question is whether the hero will win or lose. Every scene reiterates that question in some form. Will the hero win or lose this particular piece of the puzzle that would help him to attain the goal? The answer is usually no, or kind of, but it’s going to cost him and/or generate more obstacles. As the hero advances toward the final showdown, he’s not winning, he’s struggling, fighting, and losing. What forces an outcome might be that the hero runs out of options? There may only be one more trick in the bag. At this point the hero might not care about surviving. Why is that liberating?

    That doesn’t just happen in fiction, it happens in life. It’s a real thing, with a spiritual (not religious) dimension.

  49. Robert Jones

    @Sara–I agree, totally. It’s what has always motivated me. And also in doing what we love, it puts us in a position to not only inspire, but to reach out to others trying to do likewise. I’ve helped more people while doing my art than any other time in my life. It was rewarding from that standpoint as well. That’s why I think we have to be true to our selves. I’ve tried life from different angles, have worked different jobs that I really didn’t like. So I’ve been where a lot of people are in terms of vocation–well, that’s not a true vocation. It’s more of a tomb. No matter how hard you try, you inspire nothing and die a little inside over time.

    Who we are deep down is another story. I think it is spiritual in nature, instictive, possibly even pre-programmed. When I was very young, I thought it was some built in contract I had with god. And looking back, maybe that’s not so far off. Things fall into place more quickly, life moves to you own rythme when you are following that path from deep within.

    I think we are creative beings. Whether it’s art, or tinkering around with a car engine, building a new deck, there’s a peace, a joy that most everyone experiences from those creative moments. I think that’s why writing has become so popular. It doesn’t take drafting, or mechanical skills, so people hop aboard that train and believe it will be easy. But I also think the spontanaity of drafting a book, those thoughts and ideas coming to mind as if from some secret dimension, hooks people into that creative magic. It gives them a little taste of something that makes them feel more alive.

    And yes, to those of us who persevere, we very much see that art and life immitate, or mirror one another. While in the throws of creating, we have those moments where we drift between the two aspects, dancing amidst the refraction of dimensions, yet becoming one with both. Within those moments, we glimpse the matrix–and for too brief moments, life seems to make perfect sense.

  50. @ all who are engaged in this Mid-Point discussion: wanted to weigh in on this, with a return to the basics. The Mid-Point is challenging because it IS a plot twist, first and forement, which means it has NEW INFORMATION. But it has an addition specific mission. The new information revealed at the MP needs to be something that CHANGES THE CONTEXT of the story… either for the hero OR the reader OR both. Not all plot twists do that.

    Simple example: someone is chasing the hero, trying to kill him. He doesn’t know who. At the Mid-Point, the identity is REVEALED… EITHER to the hero, or the reader, or both. That contextually changes the story for both. How? Perhaps the bad buy has been right next to the hero all along. If we now who it is but the doesn’t (at the Mid-Point), that’s one form or tension. If the hero knows, too, that informs his Part 3 ATTACK in a different way (hard for him to attack something or someone unknown to him). Author’s choice (in this case, if the hero doesn’t learn the identity at the MP, he/she would discover it at the 2nd PP).

    Tons of flexibility here. While all of this MP discussion is good, the Mid-Point is JUST THIS, nothing else deep and theoretical, even when it is. New information, changes the story’s context… it comes from BEHIND the curtain of awareness to NOW be visible. That’s it.

    Read here, or use the SEARCH function (right column) for more examples from specific stories I’ve deconstructed.

  51. Pingback: The Real Skinny on Conflict: Five Links and a Sample Chapter from “Story Physics” | jerricavareschi

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