Plot Development (Part Five)

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INDUCING REALITY The Holy Grail of Storytelling

by Ken "frobber" Ramsley

Part 5


Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that's creativity.

Charles Mingus

Saying more with less

Real life is far more complex than any story ever written. If I were to fully record what actually happens during even the most mundane events in real life, there would not be enough room in my computer to hold all of the images, characters, viewpoints, and memories -- and nobody would want to experience this mountain of information even if I could somehow capture every detail.

A story must be selective.

Instead of portraying all the characters who might live in a setting, the writer needs to pick out a representative few. Instead of showing everything that actually could happen in a real-life situation, the writer needs to trim down to just a handful representative events.

A full-length motion picture screenplay, for example, contains about as much material as a 70-page book and lasts on-screen for about two hours. A 300-page novel can be read in a weekend, and a computer game can be played in a week or two -- and yet we live our lives on this Earth for decades. So how can I possibly make a complete and unabridged statement about humanity using just seventy pages? ...or three hundred pages? Or even a gigabyte of graphics and sound files on a computer disk?

And yet this is all the space I have to tell my story.


A long time ago playwrights discovered how people in the audience dislike extraneous events which only show up once in a story -- for example, a minor character who has a brief entrance, says one thing, and then leaves for good. During the rest of the entire play the audience will keep this character in their inventory -- and when the character fails to return, the audience will feel a sense of wasted effort.

The same can be said about everything else in a story. When anything happens, the audience will hold this event within their inventory of story elements, and if these threads are never picked up again they may be annoyed to discover how the loose ends went nowhere.

As an early practical solution to both the problems of fitting the story into a small space and the demands of the audience to avoid extraneous material, playwrights and other artists developed a sort of shorthand of recurring themes, symbols, and mannerisms -- all of which can be introduced at length, then reused without further introduction as the story unfolds. A recurring element like this is called a motif [mow-TEEF].

Early in Episode 28 of the original Star Trek series we see how Spock must cover his Vulcan ears to avoid suspicion from 1930's New Yorkers (as though anyone there would have noticed!). But as the story unfolds, he is simply wearing his hat all the time as a constant reminder of how out-of-place these events really are. Nothing more is said about the hat. It's just there making the point over and over. We also see how Sulu is injured by a flash of electronics shorting out -- just as we see this again when Spock's memory machine fails. And we see how Spock and Kirk steal clothes out of desperation just as they later "borrow" tools for the same reason.

Once a motif is set, it can be used repeatedly just like a familiar sequence of notes in a symphony, or a certain pattern of colors in a painting, or a simple gesture from a character. And through this device more can be said with less because the writer can now tell the story with fewer unique pieces, while the audience can absorb the story without having track so many loose elements that never show up again.

Here are some other shorthand techniques...

Allusion and genre

Through the use of motif we can greatly reduce the complexity of a story, yet even with this shorthand of recurring elements there is still a limit to how many new elements can be introduced during any one story.

But what if the writer could borrow established motifs by just assuming that the audience has already experienced these in other stories?

This is exactly what happens all the time.

By borrowing from other stories, the writer only needs to introduce those elements which are truly new and unique to his/her own story. For example, instead of showing all the details associated with traveling by airplane, perhaps the character is only shown leaving the airport in a cab -- because we have all seen pieces of other stories that show us what air travel is like. Or when a space ship goes into "hyperdrive" -- we have don't need to have this explained because Star Trek and Star Wars have made this the standard solution for traveling faster-than-light.

When these shortcuts happen --when the writer mines the treasure trove of established ideas and ways of saying things-- he/she is tapping into what we call genre [ZHON-ra].

As a small example, observe my parenthetical remark about Spock's ears and New Yorkers in the previous section above. In this I allude strongly to the big joke in Men in Black where aliens are required to stay in New York City because of how this is the one place where nobody would notice. And in this way, writers borrow constantly from other stories because of how it saves on the need to explain everything.

The look, the feel, the colors, the sounds -- everything can be borrowed. And when this happens --as it should-- stories begin to take on a somewhat familiar flavor, thus easing the decoding chore of the audience and freeing the writer to concentrate on making the main point.

In the end, this borrowing results in a type of story -- like a western, or science fiction, or historical drama, or comedy, or fantasy, and as we apply these labels we are assigning the story to an established genre.

There is nothing sacred about genre and there is nothing about it that keeps the writer from exploring new territory. It is only there in a practical function. In fact, new genres are are evolving all the time. Men in Black, for example, breaks new ground as a blend of two genres -- science fiction and situational comedy, whereas before this film almost all science fiction was serious drama, and almost all comedy stuck to more mundane events. Computer games have genres, too, and over time the treasure trove of available ideas has grown from "Pong" and "Pac Man" to games about war, skateboarding, car racing, football, and a host of others including sneaking around old castles to steal from rich guys.

Comedy and tragedy

Going all the way back to the beginning of story telling, every story has fallen into two basic genres -- comedy and tragedy. In fact, the whole happy-face sad-face motif on playbills originates with the ancient Greeks who made a big point of this distinction. A tragedy relieves rising tension by allowing the protagonist to survive each conflict with some hope of continuing the battle. Whereas a comedy relieves rising tension by poking fun.

Hollywood has discovered that a slight blending of both techniques sometimes works even better, such as in Stars Wars where all kinds of crazy thing are getting said in the heat of battle -- especially when Han Solo is around. Yet ultimately the Star Wars series is a tragedy because of how Luke finally saves his father only to have him die soon afterwards.

The groundbreaking TV series MASH, on the other hand is basically a comedy which often includes serious material (and sometimes whole episodes) in order to keep the overall story from turning into a melodramatic farce.

Tragedy is used inside a comedy to keep it from getting too light, just as comedy is used inside a tragedy to keep it from getting too heavy. But no story should completely cross the boundary between comedy and tragedy once it gets rolling -- certainly never after the midpoint crisis. Otherwise the audience will not know if they should be laughing or crying ...taking the story as a joke, or taking it seriously.


Every important story element should be shown in some form early in the story in order to prepare the audience for critical scenes which come later -- when the pace has picked up and there is no longer any time left to explain anything. Foreshadowing is a special use of motifs just for this purpose.

The whole idea of foreshadowing rests on what I've been saying about the prologue -- the audience has no idea what anything means near the beginning of a story. Anything can happen early and still not say too much. Motifs used to as foreshadowing lay in all of the critical story elements in order to plant these ideas firmly before they become the central focus of the action later on -- when there is no time left to explain anything.

Early in Episode 28 of the original Star Trek series we see several foreshadowing events... Spock berates himself for failing to record history as it flashes through the time machine annulus. Kirk dives for McCoy as McCoy runs into the portal, hitting the deck hard with is arms wrapped around thin air. Kirk and Spock escape from a New York City cop with Kirk saying, "lets get out of here!" Of course these three elements seem fairly ordinary -- until we see how Spock's recording is central to their success... Or how the next time Kirk grabs for McCoy, this time he keeps McCoy from saving Edith Keeler... Or just after escaping from their trap in time, how Kirk once again talks about leaving, but this time adding the "h" word for good measure (which almost kept the episode from airing in 1967).

The other day I saw the best example yet of foreshadowing on the DVD jacket for the movie Planet of the Apes. Here, painted in exquisite detail, is the final climatic mind-blowing scene of the whole movie -- but without knowing the story, nothing is spoiled and instead the image is simply pre-planted for maximum impact once the truth is finally revealed on-screen.

Consider everything that will happen at critical moments in your story and make sure that it has already happened in some other way nearer the beginning. By doing this the audience is set up to recognize these images immediately for what they are and what they mean. Or as the pros say -- "plant it it early!"

Character foibles

Characters are the most complicated elements of any story, which means that considerable attention needs to be paid when developing motifs for everyone in the story. Dialogue is particularly troublesome, because characters, like real people, could very well say just about anything at any time. But a character can't do this without totally confusing the audience.

Just as how events are recycled, characters need to reuse various mannerisms and catch phrases. For example, Han Solo has a bad feeling about a lot of things -- and we get what he means without anything else being said. C3-P0 shuffles along and gets flustered in much the same way throughout all of the Star Wars movies, and notice how much mileage George Lucas gets out of R2-D2's various whistles and buzzings.

Character foibles and mannerisms say a whole lot even when they are saying very little. But this can only work if the characters are well-developed early in the story. The audience must understand exactly what the mannerism or catch phrase means when they first see it in the character. Otherwise this shorthand will leave the audience wondering what the character is really trying to say.

A major task of live actors is to present these mannerisms in an authentic way, but the writer can't depend on the actors to bail him out. Until the movie or game is made, there is only the written version of the story -- so the writer must consider absolutely everything the characters can do, and use these elements to say more with less.

Carving up your characters

One trick screenwriters use to save tons of room is inventing just a handful of characters, then slicing them into several people at different ages (and even different genders). The boy, the man, the grandfather, and the cousin can sometimes all be the same basic character seen in various forms. And by doing this, the common elements of these character-sets can bring about a quick sense of familiarity -- saving time you would otherwise waste introducing a bunch of minor players. This is such a powerful tool that most writers won't tell you about it -- nothing beats a great character more than having the same character in many forms. Is not Obi-Wan Kenobi really just an older version of Luke Skywalker? (Or George Lucas, for that matter.)

Of course these sub-characters take different paths and tend to evolve into unique people, but only insofar as they need to. In every other way they can be nearly the same, and by doing this the writer simplifies the economy of the story -- saving precious space and time to say what is truly different, and unique, and central to proving the premise. There simply is no time for most things to happen in different ways when they could just as easily happen in the same way -- so why not create fewer characters that you slice up and reuse everywhere?

Other short-hands

Creating motifs can take any form. In Men in Black we see bugs everywhere because the antagonist is a bug. In Stars Wars the light sabers of the Jedi say so much about battle and the minimal use of force to achieve spectacular ends. In Apollo 13, Jim Lovell watches the Moon drifting by the window of his crippled command module and without saying a word we know what this means -- that he will never get to walk there. In ET, the plant is dying and dying, then suddenly is revived -- and we now know that the Alien is alive again.

Writing stories is very much the process of creating these motifs -- the basic elements of the story -- then using and reusing them to build what happens in the most meaningful ways possible. Much can be said with the smallest of details once we know what they mean.

As you begin to see possibilities for motifs in your own story, take a moment to consider everything about each element that seems important and how it might be reused from beginning to end. In Apollo 13, for example, the story begins with the real-life launch-pad fire of Apollo 1 where three American astronauts are incinerated, and as the story unfolds we see how this motif of fire shows up at every major turning point in the movie. The fire comes up in the beginning with the Apollo 1 pad disaster comes up again when Jim Lovell explains the risks to his family before his mission comes up during problems with their training It comes up at the launch of the massive Saturn 5 rocket It come up one more time when the service module explodes ...and finally, it comes up during the climactic sequence as the crew reenters the Earth's atmosphere like a human-occupied fireball with no clear idea if they are on-course or doomed to a fiery death themselves.

Consider the details and how you can reuse them to drive home each part of the storytelling experience. Your story will say far more with far less, and leave your audience much more satisfied with the results.