Universal storytelling principles behind the most successful movie series ever.
The sumptuous music of John Barry, the stunning set designs of Ken Adam, the directorial skills of Terence Young or Guy Hamilton, the innovative editing of Peter Hunt, the screen presence of Sean Connery, the zangy theme tune by Monty Norman, memorable actresses, spectacular stunts, and exotic location scouting – a fortunate convergence of individual talents built up the abiding popularity of Ian Fleming’s literary creation, the British MI6 agent James Bond.
Most writers don’t have access to such a talent pool, nor do most authors write action-packed spy capers. Also, 007 stories in particular seem so specific a category that authors might not consider that their own works have much in common with them. So one might be tempted to think that most writers can’t learn anything useful from James Bond.
Many people say there is a James Bond formula. Guy Hamilton, director of four of the early Bond movies, has said not. But there are certainly recurring scene types and structural elements that bear examination. A closer look reveals at least seven dramaturgical principles that any author could consider applying.
- The Kick-off Event
- The Real Reason for M
- The Real Reason for Q
- A Timely Death
- The Antagonist
- Revelation and Confrontation
Take a look at your book shelf. Chances are there are European and North American authors there. Perhaps you have some Central or South American writers too. And maybe some Indian or Pakistani novels. And perhaps some Russians.
All of these authors wrote or write in the tradition of European storytelling, via colonial or cultural influence. Modern African authors writing novels, for example, have adopted this written prose text form although African storytelling traditions are primarily oral.
What most of us, at least in the western world, know about how to tell stories is influenced heavily by Aristotle’s Poetics. In this rather thin book, Aristotle describes some basic precepts of dramatic composition that continue to be circulated in creative writing classes and how-to books today.
Another strong influence on western storytelling is the protagonist/antagonist duality which arose along with Christianity. Would there be a Sauron without Satan? A Darth without the Devil? A Voldemort without Lucifer?
So what about stories that were created without any knowledge of Aristotle or Christianity? How are stories that had no contact with the western way of composing narratives different?
Let’s find out by asking … (more…)
You have likely heard of The Divine Comedy, of Don Quixote, of Shakespeare – but have you heard of the Three Kingdoms? Of Sun Wukong? Of Cao Xueqin?
We asked ourselves, how are stories that had no contact with the western way of composing narratives different? Are the principles of storytelling really universal across cultures? Our idea was to find out by taking a look at classical Chinese literature. We discovered a number of interesting aspects to the Chinese way of telling stories, and have summarised them here.
In this post, we’ll tell you about the novels we read. Each was a revelation in its own way. The long-form novel came along quite suddenly in China just over 500 years ago. Generally recognised as the first great Chinese novel is Three Kingdoms, which appeared around 1494 CE. The most modern of the novels we’re considering here was published around 1760. That means we’re looking at Ming and Qing dynasty literature.
So which classical Chinese novels should you read? Here’s our list of favourites.
Our Top 7 Classical Chinese Novels
Nothing should be more important to an author than how their story makes the audience feel.
As an author, consider carefully the emotional journey of the reader or viewer as they progress through your narrative.
The audience experiences a sequence of emotions when engaged in a narrative. So narrative structure is a vital aspect of storytelling. The story should be touching the audience emotionally during every scene. Furthermore, each new scene should evoke a new feeling in order to remain fresh and surprising.
The author’s job is to make the audience feel empathy with the characters quickly, so that an emotional response to the characters’ situation is possible. Only this can lead to physical reactions like accelerated heartbeat when the story gets exciting. We have to care.
This “capturing” of the audience, making the reader or viewer rapt and enthralled, requires authors to create events that will show who the characters are and how they react to the problems they must face. The audience is more likely to feel with the characters as the plot unfolds when the characters’ reactions to events reveal something about who they really are – and how they might be similar to us.
One Journey to Spellbind Them All
Here we present a loose pattern that we think probably fits for any type of story, whatever genre or medium, however “literary” or “commercial”. It’s not prescriptive, just a rough checklist of the stages in the emotional journey the audience tacitly expects when they let themselves in on a story. The emotions are in more or less the order they might be evoked by any narrative.
Guest Post by KT Mehra.
KT Mehra knows a thing or two about writing from her own experience, not only as an author but as a supplier to writers and authors of fine stationary, in particular fountain pens. Not only that, she is digital savvy too.
Back in 1999, KT and her husband Sal started a small web company to create websites for local businesses and provide internet access. They both had a passion for fountain pens, and one day KT, in an excess of enthusiasm, ordered far too many from a pen company. Just for fun, she decided not to return any of them and instead asked her team to design an e-commerce website to sell the extra pens.
To everyone’s surprise and just like that, the website came together quickly and was an instant success.
KT believes that in the modern digitally saturated world, it’s more important than ever to stay true to your thoughts and create something tangible. In that spirit of creation, she feels that something as elemental as putting pen to paper is ever more essential.
Despite offering a digital tool for authors, we couldn’t agree more!
Develop a romantic relationship that your readers will engage with and root for.
Most of the romance novels you love so much use certain secrets to hook their readers in and keep them engaged.
Learning the secrets to create such compelling romance novels will help you perfect your characters’ love story.
The best way for your readers to relate and root for your relationship is for you to make it realistic and dynamic. To build the foundation of any great love story, you need to have a few things down first. (more…)
Guest post by Rachael Cooper.
Rachael Cooper is the Publishing Manager for Jericho Writers, a writers services company based in the UK and US. Rachael has a Masters in eighteenth-century literature, and specialises in female sociability. In her free time, she writes articles on her favourite eighteenth-century authors and, if all else fails, you can generally find her reading and drinking tea!
What is a manly novel, or a womanly novel for that matter?
Does it matter that 1984 was written by a man, or that a woman penned Harry Potter?
Like anything, people lump writers into stereotypes and groups, along with their work. In some ways, this makes it easier to categorize and begin understanding their novels. In others, it can handcuff an audience’s reading and pigeonhole writers.
Women have been writing, and out writing, men for millennia. From Sappho to Toni Morrison, Jane Austen to Virginia Woolf, myriad women writers have changed the world with their words.
Out of all the novels written by women, these are three of the most “manly” of all, the ones you’d bet were written by men.
A blurb is a short text on the back of a paperback book designed to get you to purchase that book.
Received wisdom in the publishing industry has it that the cover design triggers browsing bookshoppers to pick up a particular book from the table, after which most people will turn it over to read what’s on the back. The short text on the back cover must then arouse so much interest about the content of the book that the impulse to purchase is triggered. Many customers might glance into the book first before actually going to the checkout.
The blurb text is also used to advertise the book in some print magazines and online shopping platforms. Again, the cover is likely to determine whether the blurb text gets read, but in most cases a sale is unlikely without the blurb having done its job of persuading the prospective customer that this is the right book for them.
Films also have blurbs, which are usually placed in combination with the film poster or a film still.
A blurb is therefore a marketing text. It is not a brief synopsis of the story! The blurb is not really designed to provide information, but to create interest. So the job of the blurb is actually to give just enough information to make withholding more information effective. Not saying quite as much as the recipient wants to know is how to arouse curiosity.
What this often boils down to is answering three key questions about the story in the blurb: (more…)
Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces.
Joseph Campbell’s study of worldwide myths, The Hero With A Thousand Faces (1949), has become massively influential in commercial storytelling. Campbell was not the first to consider the topic of the hero and mythological or archetypal stories, but his work consolidated what others, including Carl Jung, had suggested into a theory specifically about storytelling.
George Lucas read The Hero With A Thousand Faces as a young man, and we may assume that Francis Ford Coppola and Steven Spielberg were also familiar with the book. We can see the influence of Campbell’s ideas on some of the most successful movies of the 1970s and 80s, and ever since.
Christopher Vogler studied film at the same school as George Lucas, and subsequently while working at Disney wrote a seven-page breakdown of Campbell’s book. This in time developed into The Writer’s Journey, which has become the basis of the popular conception of The Hero’s Journey.
Campbell was an expert on James Joyce and a professor of literature with a particular interest in comparative mythology and comparative religion. The Hero With A Thousand Faces is by no means a how-to book or a storytelling manual. Rather, it posits the theory that all the myths of the world have elements in common and propounds the idea of the “monomyth” as a basic structural model of traditional storytelling. (more…)
Is there a recipe for successful stories?
In search of a recipe for success, Hollywood development executive Christopher Vogler wrote a seven-page practical guide for Disney to Joseph Campbell’s comparative analysis of worldwide myths.
George Lucas had already stated his debt to Campbell in the development of Star Wars, and the idea that there might be a template for stories that are so successful they last over centuries and across cultures caught on quickly in Tinseltown. (more…)
The essential elements of a story.
One of the many experts on storytelling to have attempted in a book to describe the essential elements of a story is John Truby.
In The Anatomy of Story (2007), Truby identifies 22 steps in any protagonist’s narrative, which may play into four aspects of the story: character, plot, story world, and moral argument. Thankfully, Truby does not insist that every story must follow the template strictly and contain all 22 steps. He does, however, identify as critical that the story shows seven attributes of a main character and their storyline:
- Weakness and need
- New equilibrium
By no means simplistic, Truby’s book is more concerned with the moral element of story – the ethical effect of character transformation on the audience – than with templates such as three-act structure.
Related function in the Beemgee story development tool:
Hero’s Journey, Story Beats, etc
Compose your story now:
A synopsis is a summary of your story intended to be read by industry professionals.
This makes it a different text from a blurb, which is designed to be read by the public.
In both cases, you probably want the reader to purchase your story. But the reader of the blurb is merely buying a book or a movie ticket. The reader of the synopsis is taking a much greater risk if they decide to invest in your story.
An editor or publisher or a movie producer or director is accustomed to hearing story pitches. They want to find out as quickly as possible if your story is something that they might be interest in. So they need certain questions answered fast. These questions usually concern the premise(more…)
You might think that your story could be enjoyed by anyone. But most stories particularly appeal to more or less specific target groups.
When you’re developing a story, it helps to have an idea of kind of people who are going to be enjoying it. The more specific this idea, the more likely you are to conceive and form the material in a way that will appeal to them.
The Ideal Audience
So while you are writing a story, you may have an ideal reader or viewer in mind. This might be your projection of a particular real individual, or just a vague idea of a type of person. Your ideal reader or viewer gets every joke, spots every reference – no matter how obscure –, and feels just the way they should during each scene.
The ideal audience is a figment of the author’s imagination. Picturing this figment in as much detail as possible in your mind’s eye might be a good starting point for finding out who your target audience is. Is the ideal reader a gentleman sitting in an armchair? Or a teenage girl lounging in a café?
Specifying your target audience to industry professionals you’re pitching to can make it easier for them to judge whether your work is something they can invest in. Typically, the criteria for target groups are: (more…)
Dramaturgy means “the craft or the techniques of dramatic composition”.
In other words, everything to do with the story except the words with which it is told. If your story is about two people in a room, dramaturgy tells you who these people are and what happens in the room. In terms of storytelling process, the term dramaturgy refers to the planning or outlining stage rather than the execution or writing.
The study of dramaturgy has produced a nomenclature that is used by dramaturges, script consultants, story advisors, editors and publishers, producers and filmmakers, as well as authors. Some terms may seem more familiar than others, and often their definitions are not entirely agreed upon. (more…)
If you dont know what your story is really about, start finding out now (and don’t stop).
By Amos Ponger
The human ability of creating stories and the consumption and absorption of stories are very deeply connected to the core of our civilizations. Our efficiency as a species and cooperation in all scales of human endeavor rely on our ability to tell, decode, understand, and believe in stories.
Story has been so important for mankind’s cooperation, development and the way humans have understood themselves that all of our grand evolutions and revolutions – from the agricultural, religious, economic and cultural revolutions, the invention of money and law, the renaissance and humanism, the American, French and Russian revolutions, modernism, to socialism and capitalism – have actually happened through processes of rewriting collective Story. Revolutionaries and evolutionaries from Moses through Jesus, to Buddha, have actually risen upon a grand scale transformation of how humans understand themselves and cooperate with each other. And that has been done by story. Often the seeds of politics of whole centuries had actually been sown by poets, philosophers and prophets. STORYTELLERS.
Now, even if you don’t plan on a revolution(more…)
What does meaning mean? When is a tale meaningful? A few perspectives on imbuing your plot and characters with a subtext.
It’s no mean feat to make your audience feel they have learned something through your story.
Meaning is that which is intended or understood. The audience draws significance, relevance or profundity out of a story when it understands the deeper implications, reasonings and causes behind it. The meaning of a story depends on the standpoint. An author may mean something different from what the audience understands.
Let’s try to unravel this tricky but essential element of stories. We have noted that stories cannot help but exhibit four distinct elements:
- Style (aka language, or “voice”)
The interplay of characters and their actions form the plot, and all this is brought into a story structure, or narrative. Since there is always an author writing the novel or a team of people making the film, their stylistic choices determine the language of the work. In this post, we’ll skim the surface of the fourth element. Meaning is, of course, a broad term for something very hard to pinpoint.
Let’s break down how we might look for the meaning of a story. (more…)
In recent years, scientists have been writing books about the reasons why we tell each other stories.
Neurobiologists have discovered that when a person is immersed in a story, their brain patterns are similar to what they would be if that person were actually performing the actions they are reading about or watching. So if a recipient is emotionally engaged in a story, they are essentially “living” it – at least in terms of the brain patterns. The excitement is real, the fear, the empathy, the arousal. See Boyd, 2009, or Gottschall, 2012*.
This has given rise to the analogy of the flight simulator.
Stories are everywhere. We create and consume them from an early age. Homo sapiens have done so for millennia – our modern media are a result of our ancient need for stories. We have been telling them to each other ever since we, as a species, have been human. It’s what homo sapiens do. It’s a defining characteristic. What evolutionary biologists call an “adaptation”.
That means there is a reason for us to tell stories: They help us survive. (more…)
What is the difference between commissioning editors, developmental editors, and line editors?
Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash
Let’s look at what each do to see the differences between the three different kinds of editors. And then find the other editorial task they all have in common.
The Commissioning Editor
An example (more…)
Virtual Reality technology (VR) has fascinating effects on storytelling.
Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash
The VR viewer wears special goggles and occupies a space within a virtual holodeck, which is created by two diagonally opposing little boxes shooting lasers out at right angles. The viewer can move within this virtual space, which might be the stage for a story. The goggles will show the viewer whatever program is loaded, Matrix-like. The 360° view is created quite conventionally, by filming a location in all directions, the camera at the centre, pointing outwards and panning all the way round.
So far, so good. It gets more interesting when such virtual locations are populated.
For VR, actors are filmed not with one or two cameras from a couple of angles, but with 40 or more cameras from all angles, the cameras all pointing inwards with the actor at the centre. The resulting 40 or more images are stitched together. The VR goggle wearer can therefore walk around the actors and see them from the front, from behind, from any angle. The actor was never at the location, but is superimposed into the virtual space (this already happens in conventional film with green screen technology).
What you get is the viewer as a ghost, moving about the story stage and around the characters at will. The effect is like intimate theatre. (more…)
by Amos Ponger
A pledge to transformational storytelling
Working for over 20 years as an award winning film editor and story consultant, Amos Ponger studied film science, cultural sciences, art history and multidisciplinary art sciences at The FU Berlin, Humboldt University Berlin and the Tel Aviv University. He has a Master’s degree from the Steve Tisch School of Film in the Tel Aviv University, worked as an editing teacher in two Israeli film academies, is senior advisor to our story development tool Beemgee.com, and recently co-founded the story consulting service Mrs Wulf. Book his services directly here.
The Transformational Process of Creating a Great Story
We all know that creating a great story is a process that can sometimes take many months and even years to fulfill.
If you talk to professional writers they will probably tell you that they have complex relationships with these processes of writing. Involving dilemmas, fear and joy, suffering and excitement. And that these self-reflexive processes are also processes of self-exploration.
Yet many writers, scriptwriters, filmmakers tend to put a lot of energy into their external journey towards completing their story, focusing on drama, act structure, “cliff hanging”, while neglecting minding their own internal processes on their journey.
What many film and story editors encounter while working with directors and writers is that authors and directors tend to have a very strong drive. They endure months in writing solitude, or filming in deserts, storms, war zones, perhaps even putting themselves in danger in order to realize their artistic vision. Yet at the same time very often they have a remarkable incapability of explaining WHY they HAVE to do it, and can only do so in very vague terms. (more…)
How narrative structure turns a story into an emotional experience.
Image: Comfreak, Pixabay
Storytelling is a bit of an overused buzzword. While we are all – by dint of being human – storytellers, how aware are you of the principles of dramaturgy? What exactly constitutes a story, in comparison to, say, a report or an anecdote?
And just to be clear, the following is not a story. It’s an how-to article.
Whatever the medium – film or text, online or offline –, storytelling has something to do with emotionally engaging an audience, that much seems clear. So is a picture of a cute puppy a story? Hardly.
Stories exist in order to create a difference in their audience. Stories always address problems and tend to convey the benefits of co-operative behaviour.
While there simply is no blueprint to how stories work, let’s examine the elements that recur in stories and try to find some patterns.
Who is the story about?
All stories are about someone. That someone does not have to be a person, it can be an animal (Bambi) or a robot (Wall-e). But a story needs a character. In fact, all stories have more than one character, with virtually no exceptions. This is because the interaction between several characters provides motivation, conflict and action.
Moreover, stories usually have a main character, the figure that the story seems to be principally about – the protagonist. It is not always obvious why one character is the protagonist rather than another. Is she simply the most heroic? Is she the one that develops most? Or does she just have the most scenes?(more…)
Reflections on dialectically guided writing, or: Can dialectics help us tell better stories?
Guest post by Richard Sorg.
Prof. Dr. phil. Richard Sorg, born in 1940, is an expert in dialectics. What is that, and what does it have to do with my novel? Well, “All great, moving and convincing stories are inconceivable without the central significance of the contradictions and conflicts that represent the driving energy of movement and development.” This puts us in the middle of dialectics. And of storytelling.
After studying theology, sociology, political science and philosophy in Tübingen, West Berlin, Zurich and Marburg, Richard Sorg taught sociology in Wiesbaden and Hamburg. His book “Dialectical Thinking” was recently published by PapyRossa Verlag. (Photo: Torsten Kollmer)
Ideas that contain a potential for conflict.
Sometimes there is a single but central chord at the beginning of a piece of music, even an entire opera, which is then gradually unfolded. Its inherent aspects, harmonies and dissonances emerge from the chosen, sometimes inconspicuous beginning, undergoing a dramatic, conflictual development, so that a whole, complex story emerges at the end of the path of this simple chord after its unfolding. This is the case, for example, with the so-called Tristan chord at the beginning of Richard Wagner’s opera “Tristan und Isolde”, a leitmotif chord that ends with an irritating dissonance.
The beginning of a story is sometimes an idea, an idea which you may not know how to develop. But some such ideas or beginnings carry a potential within them that is capable of unfolding and which holds unimagined development possibilities. ‘Candidates’ for viable beginnings – comparable to the dissonant Tristan chord mentioned above – are those that contain a potential for conflict or contradiction within. But it can also be a calm with which the matter is opened up, a calm that may then prove to be deceptive. We also find something similar in some dramas, for example with Bertolt Brecht.
And with that, we are already in the middle of dialectics. (more…)
“Where’s the story set?”
The answer provides many clues about the story in question. While we ask “where”, the setting actually encompasses somewhat more than location.
In Film, the term location is generally used to refer to scenes that are shot outdoors rather than on a sound stage or in the studio. In that specific context, the word “setting” is often used in scripts is a hyper-ordinate term to refer to both types of shooting, indoors in a controlled environment and out “on location”.
But for stories in general, the concept of setting refers to rather more. Let’s find out how setting relates to
- story world
Each Star Wars story reminds us of the setting before it even starts: “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away”. In being reminiscent of “once upon a time”, the famous opening establishes that this is essentially a fairy tale with spaceships.
“Middle-earth” is a valid answer to the question above for The Lord of the Rings. One might be tempted to explain that this is a fictitious realm, maybe say something about how its technology relates to the actual Earth’s history, and possibly mention the connection to the Midgard of Norse mythology.
So in addition to describing physical space, both these examples contain hints and associations about the time when the events of the story take place. (more…)
The process of writing is unique to each author.
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…)
The logline is probably the hardest sentence to write.
The logline sums up a story in one sentence. This sentence should be memorable and clear, which means it is unlikely to be much longer than thirty words or to have complex syntax.
Once your reader has read your logline – or your listener heard it –, they will ideally know the following about your story:
- who it is about
- what the central conflict or main problem is
- what the most important characters do in the story
- why they do it, i.e. what their motivations are
- how they do it
- where all this happens, i.e. what the setting is
- when it happens, i.e. what the period is
The first of these points even counts double – since usually the logline should convey not only who the main protagonist is, but also what antagonism she faces.
What’s the logline for?
The purpose of the logline is to pitch your story.(more…)
Conflict is the Lifeblood of Story.
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:
- An Analogy
- 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.
It just won’t be very interesting.
In terms of narrative, conflict is presented as a series of confrontations of increasing intensity. If there are no confrontations – no battles of wits or fists, no crossing of swords or sparring with words – there is little to hold the audience’ attention. To create confrontations, there must be at least a of conflict of interest between the characters.
Conflict does not occur at particular points in a story. It permeates the whole of it. It expresses the values transported by the story’s theme. It creates at least two options of choice, both of which must appear to some extent reasonable and justifiable to the protagonist, particularly at the moment of crisis.
The step outline is the scene by scene (step by step) account of what happens in the story.
Like a textual storyboard, the step outline presents the narrative in its entirety – without actually being the narrative. It is a complete report of the story – in the present tense! – that 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…)
Detectives and other investigators abound on our TV and cinema screens.
In the western world, crime fiction – mystery, thrillers, suspense, whodunnits, 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 Whydunnit
- The Narrative Principle
- Why Some People Don’t Like Crime Stories
- The Search For Truth, or Gaining Awareness
- How Crime Is Like Comedy
Cause and Effect
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.
Photo by Jack Moreh on Freerange
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. Sometimes it is not so easy to know which is your main character.
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.
Furthermore, the protagonist – and in particular what the protagonist learns – embodies the story’s theme.
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. 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.
In this post we’ll discuss –
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…)
Any event happens sometime and somewhere.
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 refer to the overall 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 a “world” 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 entirety of the “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).
The seven elements of every line of dialog in a story.
Dialog enlivens stories. But dialog in stories is very different from real spoken language. It conveys information that the audience needs to know in order to understand the story as well as the character speaking the lines.
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 know how to write it.
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.
If you’re writing(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 is embedded in the narrative structure and 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…)
One of the most far-reaching decisions an author must make is how to narrate the story. Or: Who is telling the story to whom under which circumstances?
While not a traditional archetype, and in many cases not even a participating character, the narrator is never really quite the same entity as the author either.
To begin with the basics, the standard narrator types are:
- first-person, where usually the protagonist tells his or her own story
- third-person limited, where a narrator tells a story from one character’s point of view only, meaning that the audience/reader is not told of any events that this character is unaware of
- third-person omniscient, where the narrator can relate what any of the characters are doing and thinking, and is not limited in what to present to the audience/reader
In film, first person and third-person limited effectively amount to the same thing: the audience gets one person’s perspective on the story per shot or scene (there is also the first-person “point of view” camera angle, but rarely is an entire film presented that way). In prose, first and third person is the difference between “I did this” and “she (or he) did that”. This is a stylistic choice. In the sense of what the narrator knows and tells, there is not necessarily much difference.
Close or Distant
But potentially there is big difference between narrative stance. A narrator who is limited to reporting in third person on only one character can do so “close” or “from a distance”.(more…)
Theme is a binding agent. It makes everything in a story stick together.
To state its theme is one way of describing what a story is about. To start finding a story’s theme, see if there is a more or less generic concept that fits, like “reform”, “racism”, “good vs. evil”. The theme of Shakespeare’s Othello is jealousy.
Once this broadest sense of theme is established, you could get a little more specific.
The theme is the expression of the reason why THIS story MUST be told! The theme of a story holds it together and expresses its values.
Theme may therefore be seen as an implicit message. But make sure that the message remains implicit, allowing the audience to understand it through their own interpretation.
Since a theme is usually (though not always) consciously posited by the author, it has some elements of a unique and personal vision of what is the best way to live. At best, this is expressed through the structure of the story, for instance by having the narrative culminate in a choice the protagonist has to make. The choices represent versions of what might be considered ways to live, or what is “right”.
But beware! This is a potential writer trap. See below.
How story expresses theme
Theme is expressed, essentially, through the audience’s reaction to how the characters grow. A consciously chosen theme seeks to convey a proposition that has the potential to be universally valid. Usually – and this is interesting in its evolutionary ramifications – the theme conveys a sense of the way a group or society can live together successfully.(more…)
One of the most important choices an author must make concerns Point of View.
In storytelling, people use the term Point of View (or PoV) to refer to different things. We’ve narrowed it down to four definitions:
- The overall perspective from which a story is told
- The scene by scene perspective of a story
- The narrator’s point of view
- Attitude or belief of the author
The entire Star Wars saga is, in very general terms, told from the point of view of the two characters that have least status: the robots C-3PO and R2-D2. They are not present in every single scene, but they are part of the overall course of events – and in a ironic tip of the hat to their function of providers of overall point of view, George Lucas has C-3PO relate the entire story so far to the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi.
George Lucas borrowed the idea from Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, which tells a story of generals and princesses from the point of view of two peasants. These two are involved in the action, but understand less about what they see going on than the audience does.(more…)
It’s the way you tell it.
Narrative is the choice of which events to relate and in what order to relate them – so it is a representation or specific manifestation of the story, rather than the story itself. The easy way to remember the difference between story and narrative is to reshuffle the order of events. A new event order means you have a new narrative of the same story.
Narrative turns story into information, or better, into knowledge for the recipient (the audience or reader). Each story event is a unit of knowledge the audience requires.
A narrative is paradox, because it seeks to convey truth by hiding it. A storyteller arranges the items of knowledge in such a way that they are revealed gradually, which implies initially obscuring the truth behind what is told. Such deliberate authorial obfuscation creates a sense of mystery or tension, and creates a desire in the audience to find out what is happening in the story and why. In this sense, a narrative is effectively the opposite of an account or a report.
A report presents information in order to be understood by the audience immediately, as it is being related. A neutral, matter of fact presentation probably maintains a chronology of events. It explains a state of affairs blow by blow, and aims for maximum clarity at every stage. It seeks to convey truth by simply telling it. While the point of a narrative is also that the recipient perceives the truth of the story, in a narrative this truth is conveyed indirectly. Narrative is therefore responsible for how the recipient perceives the story.
In this article we’ll look at
- Story Basics
- The Components of Story
- Text Types That Describe A Story
- Author Choices: Genre and Point of View
- Causality in Narrative
First, let’s state some basics as we understand them here at Beemgee: a story consists of events that are related by a narrator; events consist of actions carried out by characters; characters are motivated, they have reasons for the things they do; there is conflict involved; one and the same story may be told in different ways, that is, have varying narratives.
Note that we are talking here about narrative in the dramaturgical sense – not in the social sense. Like the term “storytelling”, the word “narrative” has become a bit of a buzzword. We are not referring here to open “social narratives” such as “the American narrative”. We are pinpointing the use of the term primarily for storytellers creating novels, films, plays, and the like. Such works tend in their archetypal form to be closed narratives with a beginning, a middle, and an end.
A narrative may present the events of the story in linear, that is to say chronological order or not. But the story remains the story – even if it is told backwards.(more…)
Narrative is made of successive events. Not necessarily in the order they occurred.
Narrative is the order in which the author presents a story’s events to the recipient, i.e. the audience or reader. Chronology is the order of these events consecutively in time. Some people use terms from Russian Formalism, Syuzhet and Fabula, to make the distinction.
A chronology usually has less emotional impact than a narrative – essentially a chronology is recounting a report whereas a narrative is telling a story. In a chronology, the plot events are lined up in temporal sequence. You could say “and then” between each event. In a narrative, the emotional effect is closely related to the causality implied by the arrangement of the events. Between each event you could say, “because of that …”.
Narrative therefore carries with it the implication of understanding. The juxtaposition of events, for example, will create associations in the audience’ minds that lead to possibilities of interpretation. While a chronology may explain things, it is in itself inherently neutral. Narrative on the other hand is an arrangement that is usually consciously made by an author who intends something by the particular arrangement, and which, independently of author intention, is subject to interpretation by recipients.
While the convention in most storytelling is linear, i.e. to relate the story’s events consecutively in time (chronologically), we as audiences and storytellers are also very used to narratives that move certain events around. An event may be moved forward, meaning towards the beginning of the narrative, perhaps even to be used as a kick-off. Or possibly events may be withheld from the audience or reader and pushed towards the end, perhaps to create a reveal late in the narrative for a surprise effect – though this technique often feels cheap. Also, an author may use flashbacks to insert backstory events from the past, the past being all relevant events that take place before scene one in the narrative.
As authors, when we begin composing a story, we(more…)
How aware are you of the creative process while writing?
Do you really consciously control what comes out of your fingers onto the page?
Even when writing happens “naturally”, while the words are pouring forth, the author is probably already performing a first level check that precedes the more detached and critical control of rewriting. If you want to make yourself more conscious of this process, consider putting an imaginary parrot on your shoulder every time you sit down to write.
Well, the creature of your choice. At Beemgee, it’s a parrot.
The parrot reads what you write as you write it and squawks a running commentary into your ear. It might commend a good sentence or it might censure. It might suggest alternative words or phrases. It may like or hate a paragraph.
The parrot has three main hobbyhorses: relevance, surprise, and recognition.
Relevance – (more…)
Some people say they don’t like plot.
For some people, plot is like a dirty word. They prefer their stories to concentrate on character. Or premise. Or language. It is action movies or thrillers by Michael Crichton or Robert Ludlum that have plots.
At Beemgee, we believe that the four pillars that hold a story up are plot, character, meaning, and language – with conflict as girders. Every story, no matter how “good” or “bad”, exhibits all four of these pillars. No story can really go without any one of them.
We have not found a single work of fiction in any medium or genre that does not have a plot. Ulysses has a plot. The Sound And The Fury has a plot. Even the most famous attempt in literary history to shun plot, Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne, did not manage to avoid describing events and characters. Its language is beautiful and its premise, of course, is the attempt to shun plot.
There is an intimate relationship(more…)
We humans have a built-in predisposition to expect agency.
We look for the person or thing responsible for any action or phenomena we experience; we seek to ascribe “agency” to what we perceive. What this means is that when we notice that something happened, we tend to look for the cause of the event. This probably has a simple evolutionary explanation. If we hear a rustle in the bush behind us, we immediately turn around to see what moved. This reflex is a safety mechanism to detect threats. Before homo sapiens lived in houses, the individuals for whom this reflex worked most efficiently probably lived longer, and thus had better chances of passing on their genes. The point is, we assume that something or someone caused the phenomenon (the rustle) and seek to attribute it to an agent. If we are sitting in our living room and hear a floorboard creak in the hall, we would want to know what caused it too.
This safety mechanism has all sorts of ramifications. It influences(more…)