How narrative structure turns a story into an emotional experience with a happy end.
Beemgee is increasingly involved with charities and non-profit organisations, supporting them in their efforts to tell their stories. Storytelling is uniquely suited to the communications of organisations that help people in need or seek to raise awareness for social injustices. This post was originally conceived as an introduction to the principles of storytelling for people working in non-profits. It has been adapted from a post we provided to FundraisingBox (German language).
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…)
In her guest blog post, she gives frank insight into her writing process and her experiences with Beemgee.
Short was child’s play
When something intrigues me, I spin a story out of it. Until a few years ago I wrote mostly fairy tales, short stories for adults, poetry and stories for younger children, some of which were published in magazines. My story about a bad-tempered spectacled snake was even made into a little book, “Charlotte and the Blue Lurker”. For all these stories I only sketched a few thoughts as planning and then wrote them out relatively quickly.
By now, book projects fascinate me too. Currently they are crime novels and fantasies for children from 8 or 10 years.
Long takes longer …
During a holiday at the North Sea I had the idea for my first crime novel. In it, the protagonist, an eleven-year-old very imaginative boy with a penchant for drawing, not only saves his grandma’s tea room from demolition, but is also involved in a mysterious story about a pirate who died long ago. I developed the original idea into a plot at a seminar for authors. I found the topic so great that I couldn’t wait to start writing it. Beforehand, I made notes on the individual characters and considered important cornerstones of the plot with the help of the hero’s journey. I started off with a great momentum and was soon able to read the first chapters to my son. Unfortunately his comment was, “Mama, that is much too long!”
… not to be longwinded
My two test readers came to a similar conclusion and I too had noticed that it somehow “grated”. I wasn’t really getting to the point. Was it due to my preliminary planning? Was it not detailed enough? I dived into the text, shortened passages, removed individual characters and worked out others more precisely. This changed entire storylines. At the same time my story gained more (narrative) speed and I found the tone for the language. (more…)
The first novel to state in black and white that the author worked with Beemgee.
This is certainly not the first book for which our author tool was used. But it is the first time that an author explicitly mentions Beemgee in her acknowledgements. Thank you, Katharina, we’re glad you use Beemgee during your story development!
All The Rage – Der letzte Schrei
published by the renowned Piper Verlag (Bonnier group)
Susanne Pfeiffer has recently joined the Beemgee team. She interviewed her long-time friend Katharina Gerwens for us.
Congratulations, Katharina! It’s always great when you can hold your own book in your hands … How many novels have you published so far?
This is my eleventh regional thriller published by Piper. Soon I’ll make it a dozen ….
I think ALL THE RAGE is a really good thriller title! You like double meanings. – But I want to get at something completely different: You know my foible to start every book by reading the acknowledgements – and here it says, last but not least, you worked on the plot with BEEMGEE! How so?
Because for me any support I get is worth mentioning! I have asked so many people in my field about all sorts of things, and in these conversations new aspects have always emerged – the least I can so is say thank you! ALL THE RAGE is, by the way, the first book in which I worked with Beemgee – and it was a great help to me. (more…)
In order to get somewhere, there has to be a current position and a destination. Stories fundamentally describe a change of state – things are different at the end of the story than at the beginning. Hence a story has a starting point and a final end point, a resolution.
But that’s not enough. There has to be fuel, energy to power the motion between the one position and the other. In stories, this driving force is the motivation of the characters.
Motivation is so important to storytelling that we are going to look at several aspects of it. We’ll break it down into what we call the wish, the want, and the goal, all of which are interlinked but also distinct from each other. Here in this post, we’ll deal with the wish.
A wish is inherent in the character from the beginning. We might call it a character want, as distinct from a plot want (which we’ll deal with later).
If you speak German, this online congress could be for you!
From the 5th through to the 12th of November, bestselling authors and experts from all fields of storytelling and (self-)publishing are giving advice, knowledge and tips on everything to do with writing and selling novels and stories.
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…)
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.
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 role and importance 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 COMPARE-view, where you can add a character card for each of the major figures in your story.
This blog is about storytelling. We examine how fiction works and what stories consists of, especially plot and character development. Many of the posts are inspired by functions and features of our outlining software. We believe there is a craft to creating stories. (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.
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…)
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.
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…)
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 racist bigot. That is his emotional stance, and for the purpose of this story also his internal problem. That he is a racist 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…)
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?
In storytelling, discrepancy between a character’s awareness and the awareness-levels of others is one of the most powerful devices an author can use. “Others” refers here not just to other characters, but to the narrator and – most significantly – to the audience/reader.
Let’s sum up potential differences in knowledge or awareness:
An inner or internal problem is the chance for change.
While the external problem shows the audience the character’s motivation to act (he or she wants to solve the problem), it is the internal problem that gives the character depth.
In storytelling, the internal problem is a character’s weakness, flaw, lack, shortcoming, failure, dysfunction or mistake. If you like, it is the expression of a negative character trait. Classically, this flaw may be one of excess, such as too much pride. Almost always, the internal problem involves egoism. By overcoming it, the character will be wiser at the end of the story than at the beginning. Thus the character must learn cooperative behaviour in order to be a mature, socially functioning person.
The inner problem is the pre-condition for the character’s transformation. It is the flaw, weakness, mistake or deficit that needs to be fixed. In other words, it shows what the character must learn.
Internal problems can be character traits that cause harm and hurt to others. They can be anti-social. And internal problems can also harm the character. They can be detrimental to his or her solving the external problem.
The Internal Problem of a character is revealed to the audience in scenes that show the symptoms of the flaw for the character and her environment. It then results in internal obstacles, where the character’s flaw prevents her from progressing directly towards her goal. Furthermore, the antagonism in the story may well be a sort of symbolic manifestation of the protagonist’s internal problem.
Lack of Awareness leads to Revelation
While at the beginning of the story the internal problem is a hindrance to the character’s emotional growth and may even causes the character to hurt others, it may eventually give rise to self-revelation. The character will(more…)
In stories, characters solve problems. This is the basic principle of story.
Problems come in all shapes and sizes. What’s more, in storytelling they come from within and without. The problems that come from within are hidden, internal, and it is quite possible for a character not to be aware of them. They are typically character flaws or shortcomings.
But they are not usually what gets the story going. Most stories begin with the protagonist being confronted with an external problem.
The external problem of the main character triggers the plot. It is shown to the audience as the incident which eventually incites the protagonist to action.
In some genres this is easy to see. In crime or mystery fiction, the external problem is almost by definition the crime or mystery that the protagonist has to deal with.(more…)
Stories need characters. What the characters do creates the plot.
With a well-rounded cast of characters, the plot will almost take care of itself. A story gets energy from the dynamic that occurs between the all the characters in it. The interaction between the characters is fueled by contrast, motivations, and conflict. Put a bunch of characters in a room – i.e. on a stage, between the covers of a book, between the first and last shots of a movie – and the plot is likely to emerge on its own. As long as there are contrasts between the characters and their motivations, conflict will arise.
So how does an author cast the characters that bring the story to life?
First of all, one character is rarely enough. Almost all stories need several characters. Even Robinson Crusoe couldn’t hold out alone. It’s the interplay between characters that creates interest. For interplay, read conflict.
Conflict in storytelling does not mean fights and battles. It means a conflict of interests.
Characters become characters because they have interests. Their interests make them do what they do, and this doing is what drives the plot.
While plots may be “archetypal” when they exhibit certain forms, in this post we are concerned with character archetypes.
In modern storytelling, to consider them as archetypes might suggest a bit of a corset, perhaps even a straightjacket for the characters. For today’s author, to present a character as an archetype does not seem conducive to achieving psychological verisimilitude.
But an archetype is not the same as a stereotype. An advisor or mentor does not need to be a wise old man like Obi-Wan Kenobi. And an antagonist does not need to be a baddy.
Consider archetypes as powers within a story. Like planets in a solar system, they have gravity and they therefore exert force as they move.
Archetypes denote certain general roles or functions for characters within the system of the story. There is ample room for variation within each role or function. Boundaries between one archetype and another may be fuzzy. And it is possible for one character to stand for more than one archetype.
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…)
More than any other part of a story, the beginning has to grab the audience’ or reader’s attention.
In the beginning, before audience or readers are emotionally involved and concerned about the fates of the characters, the danger of them turning away from the story is greatest.
Now, there’s more to a beginning than the kick-off event. While being an attention grabber, the entire first section of a story also has to establish the following:
Who the story is about
What the story is about
Where the story takes place
That sounds self-evident, but all the elements needed to answer those three points amount to an awful lot of information. And at this stage, the audience or readers are not yet patient or forgiving, because they are not yet emotionally hooked.
In this post we will:
look at the who/what/where
determine the two key events that the first section of a story must include
provide a checklist of all the elements the first part of a story requires
We’ll talk here about describing events, since the usual term scene is more general and has different meanings for different media. Furthermore, a scene may conceivably contain more or less than one entire event.
An event in a story requires three elements: characters, function, and (perhaps most importantly) a difference between expectation and result.
In describing each plot event, it is useful to consider the six wh- questions as a guide: Who does what to whom, where, when and why? With this approach, each plot event gains its own logline, which is a good exercise since it forces you as an author to figure out just what dramatic function each plot event has in the context of the overall narrative.
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.
Stories are about people. Even the ones about robots, or rabbits, or whatever.
If you’re thinking about composing a story, you will probably have some characters in mind that will be performing the action of the story. In stories, action and actors (in the sense of someone who does something) are pretty much the same thing looked at from two differing perspectives, as we have noted in our post Plot vs. Character.
What sets characters in fiction apart from people in life is that characters tend to fulfil narrative functions in their story. People, on the other hand, live their lives by acting naturally according to the dictates of their personality. A story is a more or less enclosed unity, while an individual’s life is part of a greater whole. Only in retrospect do we sometimes overlay a narrative onto the biography of an individual – because we tend to feel happier when we perceive structure or direction in the lives of others or indeed our own. We can extract more meaning out of a life that can be told with structure and direction. In fact, there is no way of recounting a person’s biography without making choices concerning structure. If we’re honest, even the choice of which events to relate and how to relate them injects a fair amount of fiction into the story of a life, especially when that life is our own as we tell it to others or ourselves.
Many stories focus primarily on one protagonist. In fiction at least, the protagonist is usually wiser at the end of the story than at the beginning. The(more…)
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, premise, 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.