This blog is about storytelling. Some of the posts are about storytelling in general, some concern plot, and some character development. Many of the posts relate directly to things you can do with our outlining software. There’s also information on how to use functions and features of the software. (more…)
UPDATE: The winner is … Call for story outlines by Beemgee, Ink-it and CONTEC México 2017.
This is Yolanda Prieto Pardo, whose story outline LOS ALTOS VUELOS DE JOSEFINA was chosen in the Fiction without Friction contest we ran with Contec México and Ink it. She has won a lifetime subscription to Beemgee Premium. Furthermore, our friends at Ink it will publish the novel online all over the world in 85 countries.
The CONTEC/Beemgee “Fiction without Friction” call for stories
Many innovations relevant to authors of stories and “content” apply to publication and distribution. However, digital aids can also help creators right from the moment they have their first ideas.
With Beemgee.com, fiction authors have a tool that helps them organize their plots and develop their characters. When it comes to pitching the work to a publisher, a Beemgee project provides a powerful supplement to the traditional exposé.
For publishers and other content disseminating organizations, Beemgee is a new tool that increases productivity during the evaluation process and considerably improves the workflow between author and editor/producer/publisher.
To showcase this new approach, CONTEC and Beemgee are running a call for stories, which the ebook platform ink-it is supporting.
Turn your story into a book for sale in over 40 online stores! (more…)
Author and creative writing teacher Jesse Falzoi was born in Hamburg and raised in Lübeck, Germany. Back in the nineties, after stays in the USA and France, she moved to Berlin, where she still lives with her three children.
She has translated Donald Barthelme stories into German. Her own stories have appeared in American, Russian, Indian, German, Swiss, Irish, British and Canadian magazines and anthologies. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Sierra Nevada College.
At the age of twenty-one I quit university and bought a one-way ticket to San Francisco, USA. I wanted to get far away from my first attempts to grow up. I wanted to get away from a frustrating relationship and boring courses and everything that was pushing me to take life more seriously. I didn’t have any plans what I would be doing in San Francisco but I had the address of an acquaintance I had made a year before. I went on a journey that was physical in the beginning and became more and more spiritual during the process. I bought a return ticket in the end and went back to my hometown just to pack my suitcases for good; I’d be staying in Germany, but I wouldn’t be staying home.
There is no right or wrong way to write a work of fiction. Perhaps the main thing is to just sit down and get on with it.
Many authors start by writing the beginning of the story and working their way through to the end. This seems intuitive, as it mirrors the way narratives are normally received – from opening to resolution. Furthermore, it allows a development of the material that feels natural, beginning probably with a setting and a character or two and growing in complexity as the story progresses.
But this isn’t the only way to get a story written. The author is not the recipient, after all. The author is the creator.
Creative habits seem to differ according to medium. Most screenwriters spend a lot of time working out the intricacies of plot and complexities of character before beginning to actually write the screenplay. Some novelists, on the other hand, seem to require the writing process in order to get to grips with the material. For such authors, the act of working on text is so intimately intertwined with the craft of dramaturgy that the shaping of the story has to be performed simultaneously with the writing of it.
In some cases, a writer might have a fairly clear idea in mind where the story is headed, or already be aware of certain key scenes that ought to be included. In others, the author may not know how the story ends(more…)
I’m Olaf. Despite my name, I’m British, but I moved to Berlin in the 90s. Until a couple of years ago, I worked for big German publishers. Like (I suspect) many people in publishing, I harbored the secret desire to be an author. Such was my ordinary world.
One day I met my friend Amos for coffee. He is a filmmaker, and we spoke about a movie he was working on as well as the novel I wanted write. We discovered that we knew of no online tools conceived to help authors structure and outline their plots. This was the inciting incident for my own story.
After I had spent a few days ruminating, I noticed that I had a clear idea of what I expected of an outlining tool. So I started researching what was on the market. And I found … nothing. At least nothing that came close to what I saw in my mind’s eye.
So I went to Robert, whom I knew professionally and respected for his integrity and acumen. I told him I was thinking of a web-based software for authors, but that I would only conceive it if he would be my partner.
To my delight, he needed merely a few days to agree. Our journey had begun. (more…)
In real life, conflict is something we generally want to avoid. Stories, on the other hand, require conflict. This discrepancy is an indicator of the underlying purpose of stories as a kind of training ground, a place where we learn to deal with conflict without having to suffer real-life consequences.
In this post we will look at:
Archetypal conflict in stories
Conflict between characters
Conflict within a character
The central conflict
Along with language (in some form or other, be it as text or as the language of a medium, such as film) and meaning (intended by the author or understood by the recipient), characters and plot form the constituent parts of story. It is impossible to create a story that does not include these four components – even if the characters are one-dimensional and the plot has no structure. However, it is formally possible to compose a story with no conflict.
Beemgee is holding free coaching sessions for authors at the Leipzig Book Fair 2017.
Submit your story outline by the 18th of March 2017. All you have to do is send us your Beemgee project. You stand a good chance of winning one of our 8 coaching slots of 40 minutes each! We’ll give you free advice, tips and tricks about your story structure that will help you make your plot more dramatic and your characters more engaging – in person, live at the fair. Our help will focus on how you want to develop the material, whatever the genre or format.
What you have to do to win this prize: Outline your story as a Beemgee project. It doesn’t matter whether you do this with a FREE project (TRY FOR FREE on www.beemgee.com) or with a PREMIUM account. Your content may be in English or in German. Your outline must have:
Want to see what a completed Beemgee project looks like?
Click a link below.
Feel free to drag and drop or edit whatever you want – any changes you make will not be saved. It’s the perfect way to explore Beemgee functionality. Try the FILTER function, for instance, or the NARRATIVE-CHRONOLOGY switch. Go to the CHARACTER tool, mark your favourite character and hit SINGLE in the tool bar. Or read the STEP OUTLINE.
Developing the dramatic function of the characters determines the narrative.
When you work out what the characters do and why they do it, you are effectively working on your plot. The Beemgee character-builder asks you a series of questions about each of your main characters. Answering them will help you find their exact roles in narrative. Always try to keep your answers as concise as possible. And above all, always remember that knowing the answers to these questions is not enough. You must show your audience what you have answered through scenes. That means there must be plot events that convey what you have answered here to your readers or viewers.
Working on Characters
Click into the CHARACTER area of Beemgee. By the way, stay in the same browser window, whether you’re working on PLOT, CHARACTER or STEP OUTLINE – having one project open in multiple windows may result in some of your input being lost.
In the CHARACTER area you’ll land in multi-view, where you can add a character card for each of the major figures in your story. If you’ve added characters in the PLOT area, you will see that each of them has a card here.
A step outline is the scene by scene (step by step) synopsis of a story.
Like a textual storyboard, the step outline presents the narrative in its entirety – without actually being the narrative. It is a complete synopsis in that it describes every plot event.
Cause and Effect
The step outline therefore makes one of the most important principles of storytelling very clear, cause and effect.
Apart from the kick-off event and the closing event, every plot event fulfils two functions, at least to an extent:
It is a precondition of events that follow it in the narrative
It is an inevitable consequence of events that have preceded it in the narrative
The step outline should make it easier to understand how the individual events relate to each other in this chain of cause and effect. The step outline may thus be read as the author’s construction plan of the narrative.(more…)
A plot arises out of the actions and interactions of the characters.
On the whole, you need at least two characters to create a plot. Add even more characters to the mix, and you’ll have possibilities for more than one plot.
Most stories consist of more than one plot. Each such plot is a self-contained storyline.
The Central Plot
Often there is a central plot and at least one subplot. The central plot is usually the one that arcs across the entire narrative, from the onset of the external problem (the “inciting incident”) to its resolution. This is the plot that is at the(more…)
The term motif refers to any recurring element – in storytelling as in music or other arts.
Examples of elements that turn up repeatedly within a whole are an image on a tapestry or a particular sequence of notes in a symphony. The dispersal of these elements creates a pattern. It is therefore part of the artist’s craft to have some sort of design principle determine this pattern.
What motifs do
Motifs do not make a plot. But since they make patterns they are part of the structure of a story. And they help add a layer of meaning.
In other words, if a motif is present excessively in the first half of a story, and hardly at all in the second, then the author had better be aware of a reason for this uneven distribution. The distribution – the pattern – carries meaning to the audience. Remember, the audience yearns for meaning, is always striving to understand what the story is trying to convey at any given point. This demand for some sort of raison d’être for each element of a story, or for a sense of order within the whole, may well be unconscious to the audience much of the time, but ultimately the experience of the story is more satisfying when the audience can work out reasons and meaning.
In stories, motifs can be almost anything. Objects, actions, metaphors, symbols, colours, or images can be motifs. What defines an element as a motif is the systematic deployment within the story rather than the thing itself.
In essence, there are three kinds of opposition a character in a work of fiction may have to deal with:
Character vs. character
Character vs. nature
Character vs. society
However, this way of categorising types of opposition is not equivalent to internal, external and antagonistic obstacles. Any of the three kinds of opposition listed above may be internal, external, or antagonistic. It depends on the story structure.
In any story, the cast of characters will likely be diverse in such a way as to highlight the differences and conflicts of interests between the individuals. In some cases, certain roles may be expected or necessary parts of the surroundings, i.e. of the story world. In the story of a prisoner, it is implicit that there will be jailors or wardens, whose interest it will be to keep the prisoner in prison, which is in opposition or conflict with the prisoner’s desire for freedom.(more…)
Outlining a story means developing the characters and structuring the plot.
Beemgee will help you outline your plot using the principle of noting ideas for scenes or plot events on index cards and arranging them in a timeline. This is a separate process from actually writing the story. Most accomplished authors outline their stories before writing them, because it saves rewrites later.
Detectives and other investigators abound on our TV and cinema screens.
In the western world, crime fiction – mystery, thrillers, suspense, etc. – makes up somewhere between 25 and 40 percent of all fiction book sales. Why is the crime genre so popular?
Crime is fascinating, to be sure, because most of us don’t commit it. But the popularity of the genre has little to do with crime per se. It has far more to do with the very essence of how storytelling works.
In this article we will be looking at:
Cause and Effect
The Narrative Principle
Why Some People Don’t Like Crime Stories
The Search For Truth
How Crime Is Like Comedy
Crime fiction exhibits most clearly one of the fundamental rules of storytelling: cause and effect. In crime fiction,(more…)
The protagonist is the main character or hero of the story.
But “hero” is a word with adventurous connotations, so we’ll stick to the term protagonist to signify the main character around whom the story is built. And for simplicity’s sake, let us say for the moment that in ensemble pieces with several main characters, each of them is the protagonist of his or her own story, or rather storyline.
Generally speaking, the protagonist is the character whom the reader or audience accompanies for the greater part of the narrative. So usually this character is the one with most screen or page time. Often the protagonist is the character who exhibits the most profound change or transformation by the end of the story.
Since the protagonist is on the whole a pretty important figure in a story, there is a fair bit to say about this archetype, so this post is going to be quite long.
In it we’ll answer some questions:
Is the protagonist the most interesting character in the story?
What are the most important aspects of the protagonist for the author to convey?
What about the transformation or learning curve?
How interesting must the protagonist be?
Some say the protagonist should be the most interesting character in the story, and the one whose fate you care about most.
But while that is often the case, it does not necessarily have to be true.
Events propel narrative. Narrative consists of a chain of events.
These do not have to be spectacular action events – they can be internal psychological events if your story is about a man who does not leave his room, or spiritual events if you are recounting the story of Buddha sitting beneath the tree. But events there must be if there is to be a story.
Events in a story are effectively bits of knowledge the author wants to impart – in a particular order, the narrative – to the recipient, i.e. the reader or audience. The story is told when all the pertinent knowledge has been presented, when all the bits of information necessary for the story to feel like a coherent unity are conveyed. An author(more…)
We have discussed time a great deal in this blog. Of course, the spatial dimension may be just as relevant.
The Story World
We may distinguish between the overall story world location and specific locations. By story world we mean the entire setting and logical framework of the story. This is always unique to the story, although that becomes most obvious in stories set either in a fantasy world (like The Lord Of The Rings) or in stories that have a setting tightly bound to a geographical feature, such as Heart of Darkness, Apocalypse Now, or Deliverance. In each of these latter examples, a river – and the journey up or down it – provides the story world. Yet story world is more than just physical location. It describes an entire environment, including the ethical dimensions. Consider Wall Street or The Big Short, stories that describe “worlds” where making money comes first.
The setting is usually established in the first part of the story, and the rest of the story should be true to what has been set up at the beginning.
Within the entire “world” come the specific locations(more…)
Well, ideally, a story is as long as it needs to be, and no longer.
There are norms that have developed over time, and which are more or less inculcated into us due to our exposure to stories in their typical media. For example, a typical feature length film of roughly two hours has between forty and sixty scenes. Formatted according to industry standards, a screenplay has approximately as many pages as the finished movie would have minutes. In terms of plot events, some people in Hollywood believe that a commercial movie should have exactly forty (which in Beemgee’s plot outlining tool would mean exactly 40 event cards).
Content and form may be mutually determined, to some degree at least. A short story is usually considered such if it has less than 10.000 words. By dint of its length, a short story probably concentrates on one character’s dealing with one specific issue or occurrence, and is unlikely to have subplots or multiplots (that is, be about more than one protagonist).
These obstacles come in various forms and degrees of magnitude. And they may have different dimensions: they may be internal, external, or antagonistic.
Often the obstacles that resound most with a significant proportion of the audience are the ones that force the main characters to face and deal with problems within themselves, in their nature. In other words, with their internal problem.
Not every story features characters with internal problems. An internal problem is not strictly speaking necessary in order to create an exciting story.
But it helps.
The Emotional Truth
An internal problem makes the character appear fallible – and thus more credible, more human, more like us. Internal problems are invariably emotional and private. They express(more…)
Dialog enlivens stories. But writing dialog well is really hard.
For a start, there is the rule of thumb that it’s better for the author to use action to explain things or move the plot forward than dialog. When the author makes characters say things solely to convey some bit of knowledge to the audience or reader, the lines tend to feel false.
Nonetheless, Elmore Leonard noted how readers don’t usually skip dialog. People like dialog. Dialog can be exciting. So authors had better not avoid it altogether either.
As an author, here are the seven things you ought to consider about every single line of dialog you put into your characters’ mouths. We’ve created this free table to help you. Feel free to download, use and share it.
In stories, the characters’ emotions are ultimately the sources of their actions, because motivations are ultimately based on emotions.
Determining the emotional core of a character in a story may lead to a clearer understanding of that character’s behaviour, i.e. their actions.
What we’re getting at here is essentially a premise for creating a story. We have noted that if you plonk a group of contrasting characters in a room – or story-world –, then a plot can emerge out of the arising conflicts of interest. If you’re designing a story, one approach is to create the contrasts between the characters (their essential differences of character) by giving each character a core emotion. One character may be frivolous, another penny-pinching. One may be fearful, another cheeky.
You might object: Isn’t that a bit one-dimensional? Aren’t characters with just one core emotion flat?
Not necessarily. Focusing on one core emotion is not a cheap trick. It is as old as storytelling.
Connor Rickett is a former professional scientist, current professional blogger and writer, travel enthusiast, lover of learning, and reluctant participant in social media. He is currently in the early stages of fortune and fame: debt and infamy.
Check out Cities of the Mind, his site for writers and freelancers looking to get better at what they do!
All too often, the working writer finishes a draft of a story or book, only to find big stretches falling flat. There’s just something missing. It happens to published authors, too; I think of it as the “Second Book Curse”. This is where the writer has built a character, and things just work out a little too well for them. Sure, they’re challenged, put in mortal danger, thrashed a little bit, but, somehow, the tension from the first novel is gone. Most good writers seem to figure this out, and coming roaring back in the third book. Or maybe you just never read the ones who don’t.
But why does this happen? And, more importantly, how can you avoid it? (more…)
Certain universals are feared by almost everyone. Such as death.
If a character in a story has loved ones, losing them is an even stronger fear.
A story engages the audience or readers more strongly when there is something valuable at stake for the character, such as his or her own life or that of a loved one. So giving a character a universal fear is usually a good place to start.
Giving a character a specific fear to overcome requires this information to be placed early in the narrative. The fear is then faced at a crisis point in the story, usually the midpoint or the climax.
Characters can have specific fears. A fear which is specific to one character must be set(more…)
You’re on a boat, and you see somebody fall into the water. Which of the following two cases would cause you to react with stronger emotion?
The water is four feet deep and you know that the guy who fell in is a good swimmer
The water is four feet deep and the person who fell in is a three year old girl who can’t swim
Presumably your emotional reaction would be stronger if the child fell off the boat. Because you know that the child’s life is at stake. The first situation is not life-threatening, the only thing at stake is the dryness of the man’s clothes and his self-esteem.
The degree you care about events that happen to people, and to yourself, is directly related to what’s at stake. This applies as much to fictional characters as in the real world.
Hence it is immensely important for storytellers to(more…)
In a story, if the treasure hoard is what the character wants, then slaying the dragon is the goal.
The goal is what the character thinks will lead to the want.
Since the hoard has been there for ages, there must usually be some sort of trigger for the story to get started, i.e. for the character to want the hoard now, at the time the story begins. Often, an external problem creates such a trigger. It might supply a reason why the hero needs the hoard now, something more specific than just the general sense of wanting to be rich. Perhaps the hoard isn’t the reason at all. Perhaps there is a princess in distress, which certainly adds urgency to the matter. Either way, dealing with the dragon is the goal.
If somebody says the word “goal” to you, the image that springs to mind might have to do with the ends of a football pitch. The(more…)
The want is the state after which the character strives, and is distinct from the goal.
In this post we’ll be talking about active vs. passive characters, motivation, the difference between a want and a goal, and a couple of writer traps to avoid.
Characters have to be actively acting of their own volition. The want has to be urgent and strong enough for them to do things. If the want is missing or too weak, the character will lack motivation and appear passive. A passive character is usually not interesting enough to hold the audience’ or readers’ attention.
In a story, a character will usually have some kind of task to perform. How does the character react to being set such a task? What does he or she do? That is the action.
The task is generally the verb to the noun of the goal – rescue the princess, steal the diamond. The character thinks that by achieving the goal, he or she will get what they want, which is typically a state free of a problem the character is experiencing at the beginning of the story.
The action is what, specifically, the character does in order to achieve the goal: rescue the princess, steal the diamond. What exactly does the character do? The action is “don the armour, ride the trusty steed to the dragon’s den and slay him (maybe)”. The action is “persuade potential allies, plan the heist, attain the necessary gear, break into the house and the safe, and get away (maybe)”.
Notice the strength, the inherent “visibility” in the mind’s eye of these verbs. Actions are better seen than told. For the audience or reader to experience the action as such, i.e. as an emotional experience, it is usually related in such a way as to allow perception of the action as an experienceable event, rather than a report. In other words: show, don’t tell.
There are three things to consider about the action:
In most stories, the protagonist has something to do.
The task is the more or less explicitly defined mission a character sets out on in order to reach the goal and thereby solve the external problem.
Many of the major characters in a story will have something to do, which may result in them getting in each other’s way.
Task as Function
In a story, more or less everyone has a task. What characters do in a story defines them and determines their roles and narrative functions in the story. In this sense, it is an antagonist’s task to get in the way of the protagonist; an ally’s task is to help the protagonist; a mentor’s task is to advise the protagonist and set them on their way.
But while all that is true, it isn’t really what we mean by task.
Task as Action
The characters’ actions make them who they are. To define a character’s task is to state clearly what that character has to achieve in the story. It is the action that leads to(more…)
In storytelling, a McGuffin (or MacGuffin) is something that the protagonist is after – along with most other characters in the story.
The use of a McGuffin is a device the author employs in order to give a story direction and drive.
Easy to spot McGuffins are the Ark of the Covenant in Raiders Of The Lost Ark, the statuette in The Maltese Falcon, private Ryan in Saving Private Ryan, the ring (more specifically, the act of its destruction) in Lord Of The Rings. Note how in these examples, the McGuffin is in the title of the story. The McGuffin may be so deeply embedded in a story structure that it becomes what the story is about, on the surface at least.
Typical genres that have McGuffins are comedy, crime, adventure, fantasy and other quest stories. But conceivably, a dressed up McGuffin might be found in any genre.
Nor does a McGuffin have to be an object. It could be a person or a quality. In a story of several characters vying for the love of one other character, that love might be considered the McGuffin. A place might become a McGuffin too – consider the role of the planet Earth in Battlestar Galactica.
In terms of narrative structure, a McGuffin occupies the(more…)
In storytelling, a character’s intellectual stance determines his or her choice of actions – at least in his or her conscious mind.
The intellectual stance is the articulated version of a character’s emotional stance.
Now, it may be nit-picking to make the distinction. But then again, it might be quite helpful to see by what line of reasoning a character justifies his or her behaviour.
The effect can be powerful when there is a discrepancy (i.e. conflict) between what the character thinks is the reason for his or her actions and the real reason. When the audience or readers see that the words and thoughts of a character do not match with what that character is actually motivated by, the irony can be a satisfying story experience.
At the root of it is story’s predisposition for cause and effect. The intellectual stance is the effect, the emotional stance the cause.
A character in a story has beliefs, values, ideas, passions. In short, an emotional stance. It’s this bundle of feelings that make the character a character.
By emotional stance we mean belief-system and value-set. This is particularly important when one considers that often stories show value-sets in conflict, and the theme of the story may present one of these value-sets as preferable over the other.
An emotional stance does not emerge in a vacuum. Stories exhibit cause and effect, and the emotional stance of the characters is no exception. A character’s emotional stance has causes. Since we’re talking about emotions, they can be hard to pinpoint – while at the same time being somewhat obvious.
As an example, take a contrast story like In The Heat Of The Night. The Police Chief in the USA’s deep south is a bigot. That is his emotional stance, and for the purpose of this story also his internal problem. That he is a bigot does not surprise the audience at all. It is completely credible given his origins. He comes from an area where, at the time at least, such bigotry was rife.
What we’re getting at here is that the emotional stance a character displays has to be made plausible to the audience, which may be achieved by making the origins of that character explicit. In many stories, where a character comes from has to be(more…)
Much of that craft has to do with the structure of the story being told, the construction of its narrative. Many authors build this construction first, before filling the first page with text. The process of planning how the story works is known as outlining.
There are significant benefits to outlining. For one thing, going through this process usually entails fewer rewrites later. When the author knows the direction of the storyline, it is easier to keep all its threads under control while writing. Without this direction, there is a danger of losing the plot half way through.
Of course, any story is “told”. It therefore has language – text, if the medium the story is presented in is, say, a book. Film has language too. But apart from language, stories have structure. It is in building this structure that Beemgee can help. (more…)
If there is one thing that ALL stories have in common, it is change.
A story, pretty much by definition, describes a change. Indeed, every single scene does.
The most fundamental change that stories tend to describe is one of recognition of truth. What is not known at the beginning of the story is recognised and thus becomes known at the end. This is obvious in crime stories, but holds true for almost all other stories too. The story therefore amounts to an act of learning. Often the learning curve is observable in the protagonist, who tends to be wiser at the end than at the beginning. But the point is really that the recipient, the reader or viewer, is actually the one doing the learning – through experiencing the story.
In most stories, what a character really needs is growth.
Characters display flaws or shortcomings near the beginning of the story as well as wants. What they really need to do in order to achieve what they want is likely to be something they need to become aware of first.
That means the audience or reader may become aware of a character’s real need long before the character does.
To recap: The usual mode in storytelling has a character consciously responding to an external problem with a want, a goal, and a number of perceived needs. Unconsciously, that character may well have a character trait that amounts to an internal problem, out of which arises that character’s real need – i.e. to solve the internal problem.
So if a character is selfish, the real need is to learn selflessness. If the character is overly proud, then he or she needs to gain some humility. In the movie Chef, the father neglects his son emotionally – his real need is to learn to involve the child in his own life. The audience sees this way before the Chef does.
Even stories in which the external problem provides the entertainment – and with that the raison d’être of the story – may profit from(more…)
A character with a goal needs to do something in order to reach it.
The outward needs of a character – things she needs to acquire or achieve in order to reach the goal – divide the story journey into stages.
In storytelling, characters usually know they have a problem and there is usually something they want. They tend to set themselves a goal which they believe will solve their problem and get them what they want.
In order to get to the goal, the character will need something. Some examples: If the goal is a place, a means of transportation is necessary to get there. If we can’t rob the bank alone, we’ll have to persuade some allies to join our heist. If the goal is defeating a dragon, then some weapons would be helpful. If magic is needed, we’ll have to visit the magician to pick some up.
While the perceived need might be an object or a person, it usually requires an action. We’ll need a car, so do we buy one or steal one? We’ll need a sword, so do we pull one out of a stone or go to the blacksmith? If we need help, who do we ask and how do we talk them into joining us? We’ll need magic, but how do we find a magician? Ask an elf or go to the oracle for advice?