Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The One-Page Guide to Storytelling

Here, gleaned from several decades of writing (28 novels in various genres), and the hundreds of books and articles I've read on the topic, is the most concise guide to storytelling I can come up with. I've included some classic references at the end, and I acknowledge my debt to these writers, and many others.

For each scene, and your overall story, answer these seven questions. If you can’t answer all of them, your story has a critical problem. If you can, you have the basis of a strong story.

1. What’s the Hero’s Goal? He must want something desperately: to survive, escape, win the girl or contest, achieve his destiny, save the world). The real story doesn’t start until he forms this vital goal.
  • What is his goal, and why is he so driven to get it? 
  • What's at stake if he fails? Life, love, health, sanity? The fate of the world?
  • The hero's goal doesn't have to be earth-shaking, but it must really matter to him.

2. Who (or What) is the Opponent? The opponent must want to stop the hero just as strongly. Why is he, she or it so determined to defeat the hero?
  • The opponent can be a person (an enemy, or even an ally who thinks the hero is wrong), or an animal, monster, alien, force of nature (eg flood, fire), an organisation, or society itself.
  • Constantly ask yourself, How can things get worse? and When is the worst time for them to get worse? Then make it happen.
  • If the hero is having a good time, your readers aren’t.
  • Character is revealed by how the hero deals with adversity. The worse things get, the better it is.

3. How Does the Hero Fight Back? The hero must do everything possible to defend himself against the opponent, defeat it and achieve his goal. The opponent must fight back, just as strongly and cunningly, to defeat the hero.
  • Show their struggle vividly and dramatically, with progressively rising suspense until the climax.
  • Any scene that does not directly contribute to this struggle will come as an anti-climax.
  • Dialogue is action taken by the characters to get what they want. Every character, in every exchange, should have an agenda.

4. What’s the Outcome? Every scene must have an outcome (a win or a loss), and so must the story.
  • Most scene endings (even if they seem like a win at the time) should result in the hero being in worse trouble.
  • The story ending should resolve the hero’s story goal, though not necessarily by achieving it. The ending can be a hollow or even disastrous victory, a compromise, or an outright loss. Or the hero may realise that he no longer wants the goal he so strove for.
  • How is the hero changed at the end, if he is? Some characters (especially in series) never change: eg James Bond, Stephanie Plum, Mr Bean. And we don't want them to.

5. What’s the Hero Feeling? Your readers can’t identify with the hero and worry about him unless you show his hopes, dreams, fears, dreads and conflicts at every stage of the story.
  • Don’t name emotions and feelings (eg, ‘He felt guilty.’). Show them the way that character would think, and in what he says and how he acts and reacts.
  • Your readers need to know the hero’s emotions (and how they’re changing) in every part of every scene.

6. Have you Shown, or are you Boring your Readers by Telling? Telling is the author talking at the reader. Showing is the protagonist revealing what’s happening at each moment, in his own words and actions, filtered through his own feelings, thus revealing his character. Also:
  • Have you shown the unique milieu, story world and setting (how Harry Potter differs to The Lord of the RingsCasablancaGone With the Wind)? No reader wants a clichéd version of another author’s story world. Show the specific details that make your world unique.
  • Have you created a number of memorable, knee-to-the-groin images that bring the story alive?
  • Are you constantly looking for new twists to overturn clichéd characters, settings, dialogue, action scenes and plots?
  • Are your chapter beginnings and endings dull and repetitive, or striking, original and compelling? Does the story begin in the first paragraph or do you spin your wheels?
  • Suspense is the lifeblood of story. Never tell the reader anything upfront when, by withholding it, you can create or heighten suspense.
  • Every interaction, between every character (even friends and allies) should contain conflict. But not meaningless conflict, or bickering – the conflict needs to be related to the hero’s goal, either furthering it or blocking it.
  • Do you use the minimum number of viewpoint characters needed to tell the story, and keep to a single viewpoint in each scene? If you clog your story with ill-chosen viewpoint characters, and shift viewpoint within scenes, you'll confuse and annoy your readers.

7. Are your Characters Extraordinary, or Ordinary?
The characters in most manuscripts are weak, dull and forgettable. They fail from too little exaggeration, not too much.
  • Show your hero’s strengths, humanity and flaws vividly.
  • The opponent should be equally strong (or preferably, stronger) and just as complex.
  • Bring out your hero’s strongly held attitudes, passions and beliefs. 
  • Have her rage, harangue, sneer, scream, mock, be sarcastic etc … And give each character a unique voice.
  • Don’t restrain your characters. Make them larger and louder than life. Heighten their reactions, emotions, language and imagery until they’re out of control. Have them say and do things that ordinary people never do. That’s why we like to read about them.
  • Do your characters have health issues, physical or mental, major or minor? They should – most people you know do.

Some Great Storytelling References.

Noah Lukeman, The Plot Thickens. Terrific chapters on characterisation, suspense and conflict, a lot of stuff I’ve never thought of before.

Jerry Cleaver, Immediate Fiction. No one has ever explained the craft of storytelling more clearly or simply. A fantastic book.

Don Maass, The Fire in Fiction.  Chapter by chapter, Maass goes through the problems his NY literary agency sees thousands of times a year in almost every submitted manuscript, and in many books that get published, and tells you what to do about them.

James Scott Bell. Conflict and Suspense. An excellent book on two of the most critical aspects of storytelling. 

Elizabeth Lyon, Manuscript Makeover. The best book on self-editing, in my view.

John Vorhaus, The Comic Toolbox. Not just the best book on comic writing, but better than all the others put together.

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