Plot Development (Part Four)
INDUCING REALITY The Holy Grail of Storytelling
by Ken "frobber" Ramsley
DESIGNING THE STORY
The music is so beautiful ... I can hardly believe I wrote it myself
Truckers and road builders
Creating a story and experiencing it as a member of the audience are two entirely different endeavors. A member of the audience is like a truck driver taking in the road as he drives along. He may not notice the small bridges and culverts, or the special grading and embankments, or the steel beams and concrete, or just about anything beyond the pavement and the painted lines. The driver cares only about the road insofar as he must travel on these highways to get where he wants to go.
On the other hand, the story designer is like a civil engineer who focuses on how to build roads. His concern starts with where the highway must go long before it even exists, and how it must get there while adhering to the needs of those who will be using it. As the engineer inspects his ongoing work he wonders if the bridges are high enough, or if he placed enough drainage near desert washes, or if the paving material here and there is really suitable for the weather.
Both our trucker and our engineer are highway experts of a sort, but the expertise needed for driving on the finished roadway is not the same as the expertise needed for its design and construction.
To write a book is not the same thing as to read a book. To make a movie is not the same thing as to watch a movie. To program a computer game is not the same thing as to play a computer game. As a member of the audience we may be able to distinguish the difference between a good and a bad story, and we may have all sorts of opinions about the plot and character development -- just like the trucker who can distinguish every bump in the road. And in this same way, the first step in learning how to write stories is to realize how the skill of an audience member --at best-- only gives the writer an ear for what might seem right once the story has been created. Yet this experience offers no direct skills to the creative process itself. One could memorize every story in literature, view every movie ever made 20 times over, and play every computer game ever built, and little or nothing would be learned about how to create one of these story telling experiences.
And with this pompous-sounding-yet-probably-true tirade, I will begin to explain how to design stories from the beginning...
Deciding where to go
The most important factor in a design, whether a story or anything else, is the goal. The goal might be to create a flashy sports car with lots of performance. Or it might be to build a truck with a practical amount of cargo space. What is the point of a sports car? To draw attention. What is the point of a truck? To haul stuff. What is the point of your story? Whatever premise you wish to prove.
When I begin to write a story, I forget about settings, plot lines, cute dialog, massive explosions, robots, and engaging characters -- all of that comes later. I focus only on where I want to go with my design, and this decision becomes the principal guide for all subsequent decisions as I begin to build up the story in detail.
Just as every decision about a sports car design is done with the objective of creating a flashy automobile in the end, and just as every component of a truck is designed so that a practical cargo-hauling vehicle gets built in the factory, the pieces of a story are selected and built with the premise in mind. Anything that is weak or misaligned is replaced or discarded. Anything that is left unconnected is either tied in or tossed out. If I stick to my goal I will make my point with the audience almost as a byproduct of having only included only those elements which support my chosen premise.
How do you ultimately prove your premise?
You decide where you want to go and work like mad to drive that point home in every step along the way. In the end, if you stay on-track, there will be little doubt why each step is there and where the whole story is headed.
Starting with your premise, the process of writing a story is one of continuing refinement by defining and working within the constraints of your design parameters.
Parameters are the accepted limits placed on a design. The written form of these parameters are called design specifications. For a truck it might be cargo capacity, transmission ease-of-use, and "manly" styling. For a sports car, it might be cornering ability or sound system performance. Parameters are not the actual design decisions, but rather the questions you are constantly asking when making those decisions. For example: How fast should the car be able to go? -- rather than saying exactly how much horsepower it needs.
Here are the five most important design parameter questions to answer when designing a story...
What do you want to prove?
Who would you like to see in the story?
Where would you like it to happen?
When would you like this story to take place?
What is the single most obvious way to prove the premise?
Here's what I mean...
What do you want to prove?
I've talked a lot about how the audience must be able to find the premise as the story telling experience unfolds.
But how do we come up with a premise?
As mentioned in Part 1 of this series, the premise can be any statement of fact -- even things which are not true in the real world. It should also be something that galvanizes the thoughts of the writer -- something that is really annoying or truly interesting. Some of my personal favorites are along the lines of power and how it corrupts normal people.
Often your favorite premises will be those you have seen before, and this is perfectly fine since just about every idea for a premise has been covered at one time or another. In fact, some authorities will argue that every premise has been written already -- so the trouble to cough up something truly unique may be a wasted effort. Many fine stories have been written based on a fairly ordinary-sounding premise like "good will overcome evil, " or "decency can prevail even in the midst of horror." Just say what you want to say, and don't worry if somebody else has tried to make this point before.
If the idea of creating a premise seems foreign, you can start to get a feel for this by looking for the premise in the stories you have been experiencing lately. Try to say what the story is trying to prove (not a synopsis of what is happening in the story). A good story will broadcast it over and over in many different ways -- like in movie Men in Black where we are constantly shown how the tabloids are right about everything, including aliens who are really here, and the Earth which is in constant danger of destruction. Often the main character will actually state the premise at some point, like when K describes how the tabloids are "the most reliable reporting on the planet."
Another way to hear a premise is listening to people who speak passionately on a topic. People like this will often spin their premise into a catch phrase -- like Martin Luther King's famous "I have a dream..." speech, where the point is how he hopes that all of these dreams will soon become a reality.
Pick something. Try it on for size. Perhaps even start sketching out some ideas for characters and settings. But don't start to write anything concrete until you have written the premise in ink and taped to the side of your computer. Remember -- your premise will be the anchor and reference point for every character, setting, idea, and action in your story. Stay with creating your premise as long as it takes, because once you know what you want to prove you will have a guide and filter for the whole story -- and then you can begin to select what should belong, and discard what does not fit.
Who is involved in the story?
Each main character needs to start with a motto for life -- a central guiding principle (really their own personal premise on life).
Here are nine types of people to get you started...
1. The perfectionist -- Being right is most important.
2. The over-giver -- Making other people happy is most important.
3. The performer -- Image is everything.
4. The reclusive artist -- Trust no one.
5. The inventor -- Trust no one else's ideas.
6. The servant -- Do what you are told, that will keep you safe.
7. The fun-lover -- I do what I want, and I am good at what I enjoy.
8. The bully -- I am the boss.
9. The accommodator -- I bend to fit in.
Characters must have a history -- which means writing a background story about their past which can leak into the "real" story when needed. You design each character to the extent that you know how they dress, who they might vote for, where they might shop, and what rubs them the wrong way. Imagine that you are in a human-engineering shop. You construct your characters in ways that intrigue you -- in ways that make them unique and interesting... verging on the superhuman in some ways perhaps, but never completely beyond plausibility.
It takes a little practice to create realistic and somewhat larger-than-life characters. But the world is full of building blocks. Many of us have perhaps worked for a tyrant or bumbling boss. Most of us have had mothers and fathers, and we've had the chance to see how other parents interacted with our friends. We all know crazy, quirky, manic, annoying, weird, stupid, and brilliant people in real life -- these are the building blocks for your characters.
Go to the mall. Go to a black gospel church. Go to where people are and listen in. But don't go to the movies or into other fiction for this purpose -- these are not real people, and you will only succeed --at best-- in making a very imperfect copy of what somebody else has already created. Instead build your own characters from the intriguing pieces of the real people you meet in the real world -- they're out there. Believe me.
Here's how in detail...
When you see some character trait or mannerism or catchy way of speaking, make a mental note, then jot down that personality trait as soon as you can. After you have several hundred of these snapshots into people's lives, grab a handful of these notes and read them out loud one after the other -- then ad lib a sketch about some person that might fit these pieces -- who they are, what they do for a living, who they live with, etc. And as you are doing this, dig through the pile to fill in the missing pieces of your ad lib sketch. Sometimes this results in great characters. Sometimes it's a big fun joke that goes nowhere. But keep trying, and keep adding to the note pile. Eventually you will come up with some amazing results.
Where would you like it to happen?
Once the premise is set and you have your main characters sketched out, the next most important decision is the physical setting. Although we have pieced some characters together, we can not effectively pin down who these people are until we have a sense for where the story will take place. A military setting might infer a tendency towards macho behavior, whereas a university setting might steer the characters toward at least a veneer of intellect.
The premise is one guide for deciding on the setting, and the set of characters you have in mind is the other. If the story is a morality play and your characters seem interested in the dilemmas that arise when hard choices are needed, then perhaps a religious setting might be effective. If it is "the good individual versus the evil empire," perhaps an authoritarian world is best. Keep in mind the idea of the crucible as discussed in Part 1, and try out lots of small settings -- places you have read about in the newspapers, or have traveled to in the past. Don't just say "Africa." Rather, try pinning it down to a tight locality such as "the Orthodox Jewish section of Omaha, Nebraska," or "a fishing village on Kodiak Island, Alaska."
Once you begin to have an idea for a setting -- go there, or at least go to someplace as similar as possible in order to sniff the air and listen to the sounds. This is the world of your story, and as the writer you will need to be a sort of demigod of the place -- knowing more about it than anyone in the story -- because your characters can only occupy the space that you create for them.
In the same way that you need to keep notes on different types of people, you should also start keeping notes on interesting places. The best settings are often combinations of two or more real places, which give a sense of reality without creating a distraction over whether or not the place is depicted correctly. Also, as with designing your characters, do not copy setting ideas from existing stories. You will only create a second-rate setting, since it would be based on your limited interpretation of somebody else's imagination.
Make your snapshot notes about real places, drop them on your desk, and rummage around until a picture starts to form -- then write about this place like crazy until you know where everything is -- from the church clock tower that strikes the hours 12 minutes late to the bakery where someone always seems to forget about the smoldering pies in the oven -- thus filling the morning air with the smoke of burning apples.
When would you like this story to take place?
Another refinement in parameters is the decision about when the story will happen. The "when" parameter is the period of time covered, particularly whether this time is in the past, the future, or contemporaneous. "When" also includes the time before the story -- the back story-- and the overall environment as a result. Many apocalyptic settings have a "when" in the near future after humans (or aliens) have screwed up the world as we know it. In this case, the "when" is that time in the fictional future as well as those events which lead up to such a dismal circumstance.
Deciding when the story will happen is a matter of how far away from the present time period is necessary to allow for the premise to be proven. A story about human passions, or conflict over money, power, romance, etc. can happen very well in the present age, so there is no need for delving into the past or inventing a fictional future. On the other hand, if you are trying to say something about horrendous consequences for mankind, it might be better to select some truly dark time in history, or an even darker time in a terrible future.
The advantages of a present-day time period include familiarity with the material and less effort diverted into replicating the past or inventing a future. On the other hand, the present day offers few unique settings that have not already been explored thoroughly. Ultimately, when to set the story depends on where the writer's expertise and interests lie. A historian may have no problem creating an ancient setting; a journalist might be comfortable sticking with the present-day; and someone with a technological bent might feel quite comfortable inventing a setting in the future.
One thing is for certain -- the audience is full of experts on history, current events, and technology. So whatever setting in time you do pick, it is wise to do a lot of research and even bring in a few experts in the area for a reality check. Nothing can spoil a story faster than too many glaring inconsistencies.
What is the single most obvious way to prove the premise?
This question is really the first tool I use to figure out what happens in the story. Once I have my premise, roughly drawn main characters, and a tentative location, the time has come to sketch out some possible routes for the story. Of course, much more could be written on how to generate the story events than what I say here... yet I have to start someplace, so here we go...
Remember the temperature curve? (See Part 3.) In the second half of the story, as the protagonist begins to take on his nemesis, he will fail along the way except for the climactic sequence of scenes at the end of the story. This is where I start -- right in the heart of the main conflict.
Keeping in mind how you are trying to prove the premise, and using your fabricated characters and settings, write 10 to 20 brief scenes or sequences of scenes, each of which are intended to be the big climactic end of the story. Don't worry about whether these are almost the same or vastly different -- the objective now is to get the ball rolling so that you have some material to work with. Most of this will wind up in the trash, so don't go hog-wild with detail. Just write a page or two for each attempt.
Next, set aside all but the best five or six of these sequences, then rate them in order of strongest to least powerful. After this, place the second strongest of your top five or six sequences at the midpoint of the story (this will be rewritten to be the midpoint crisis), then lay out the rest in ascending order of temperature all the way to the end, placing the very strongest sequence last. Then, at the conclusion of each climatic scene, show how each attempt fails in some way -- how the protagonist gets tripped up or out-maneuvered by the antagonist -- except for the last scene where the protagonist finally wins.
Of course, you have just made a huge mess, since none of these scenes connect. So now rewrite each of these starting with the one that seems farthest out of place -- change what happens (but not the level of intensity) to better fit the other scenes, and keep rewriting these sequences until they line up fairly well.
Next, have a look at possible beginnings for the story -- something that puts the characters into an initial bind -- like the way McCoy runs into the time machine, leaving Kirk and the landing party trapped (see Part 3 for more on this). Once you have the protagonist and main supporting characters in the initial bind, write scenes showing them coming to grips with the predicament and struggling to formulate a plan to deal with the antagonist. Let them slowly get a handle all the way up to the midpoint of the story, then bring them face to face with the midpoint crisis -- thereby tying the first half of the story into the second half with its five or six sequences of growing conflicts that you already have roughed out.
Before you can say you have a rough draft, you will also need to write early scenes to introduce the main characters showing their personal premises and those attributes we will need to believe about them in later scenes. And then lastly, create a prologue sequence which tells the whole story in a nutshell -- but don't bother with an epilogue for now, since you have no idea yet what the loose ends might be.
Of course, you still have a giant mess, but the framework is there for adding, rewriting, deleting, and polishing everything that needs to be in your story. You may have a horrendous storyline that needs work -- but having it now hanging on the proper framework allows you to get into the details without worrying about whether or not some major structural element is missing.
It's all there. It just needs a lot of work. But like a bulldozer clearing the land, you have to start somewhere.
That's where we will pick up next time...