Developing Stories, Part 4

Continued from Part 3

Well, I thought my journey had come full circle. By August 1 of this year (2012), I’d outlined about six book ideas I had lingering around using the Dramatica story development tool. What I discovered, also, is how thoroughly outlined a story is once I’ve run it through the Dramatica process.

Initially, I tried to take the Dramatica results and pin them into The Hero’s Journey template. I started with THJ on the very first book I’d planned after Scales of Justice, and it went from being a pretty solid story to a doggone good one, IMO. (My wife agrees, so pbbt!) But I found when I did the Dramatica process first, something happened.

I couldn’t make the Dramatica method “fit” into THJ template. I worked on it – and so did my beloved wife – for a long time. Weeks, actually. I struggled to find a way to cram the Dramatica elements into The Hero’s Journey segments so I could marry the two methods, my preferred way, and not have to choose between them.

I just couldn’t do it. They’re two completely different methods. And when held side-by-side with each other, I realized how much fuller the stories became when I used Dramatica. THJ, as much as I love it, is probably a tool best suited for the initial development of a raw idea, something to then feed through the Dramatica process I use, to fill it out and make it stronger.

Dramatica became my go-to development guide for working stories up. I still don’t have the signposts-to-sequences part done on any of them (except that first story, which I’m sure isn’t correct, but am intent on finding out), but I’ve become pretty facile with figuring out what the throughlines are going to be and how to find events in the story which represent each one (or, of course, coming up with them).

Just as I started to settle in and become comfortable with this method of story development, another one came my way.

In some ways, it’s even more intense. It defines similar concepts to Dramatica, with sequences made up of events composing the Acts, but it goes even farther to define each one of the events as broken into four steps, whatever they’re called (beats, maybe? I dunno yet; gimme time). Those four parts are – ready? – the inciting incident, a complication, a (further) complication, and the resolution.

The author forwarding this method also states if we make the overall story the four-part structure, and work with four sequences per act, and break the sequences down to four events each, and make each event have its four separate parts all of which are miniature versions of the level it comprises, and if we do so with an eye toward building in knowledge gaps between characters and audience, and if do so so each marker is conflict which causes a change in the emotional state of the protagonist – *whew!* – we’ll have a satisfying story which our audience will adore and remember.

But…what do all those things mean?

Well, I’m still figuring that out. I haven’t wrapped my head all the way around this one yet. What I do know is, the author is working on a Ph. D. in which he posits the theory that the most highly-rated movies (and stories in general, including novels) are those which are delivered with as much subtext as possible, with a focus on privilege knowledge gaps rather than revelation knowledge gaps.

Wait…whuh…?

Yeah.  More on that when I get it.

-JDT-

Developing Stories, Part 3

Continued from Part 2

Well, I had my eight plot elements from the Dramatica story theory in hand. Now I have to use those to develop a plot summary for my story. The summary is easy – just take the eight plot elements and create a one-paragraph summary of the events in your book. It’s a high-level sort of thing, like an elevator- or thirty-second pitch. Simple, once you have the plot elements.

Then, with the summary formed, I was ready to tackle creating the throughlines.

At first, I wasn’t sure this meant. But reading more of How-To-Write-A-Book-Now.com’s information gave me the insight to figure out, each of the four throughlines is broken into four major markers, or signposts. Those signposts are similar to the milestones of the four-part story map I’d been using.

Well…sort of.

My mistake came in trying to make the signposts of Dramatica analogous to the milestones. They serve similar functions, but aren’t the same thing. Not exactly. Turns out, however, the concept is just as easy. The first signpost for each throughline is an event which will take place in the first act. The second signpost for all four throughlines will take place in the second act. See how this works? Before long, you’ve got four events in each act.

Wow! I thought, this is fantastic! It’s even more granular than The Hero’s Journey!

Oh, but I wasn’t done yet. As I continued reading more about story development with Dramatica theory, I found those signposts should be translated into sequences, which are then broken into… wait, what?

What’s a sequence?

Sequences are sequences of events which make up chunks of a story. In my case, the sequences make up the Acts of the book. I have four sequences per each distinct section (or Act, if you allow for four of them instead of three, which is the model I use most), for a total of sixteen sequences throughout the book.

Those sequences are broken into four events each. An event is a block of story which comprises the scenes. So, in essence, I’ll have 64 scenes in my book (more or less, depending; I could have more than one event per scene, but they must be in the correct order regardless), which is pretty well standard (48 to 60 is what most writers will say for a novel or screenplay).

Dramatica, therefore, has provided me with a story map containing sixty-four (64) events along the way. Now, that’s a thorough map! How can I get lost that way?

But I wasn’t done yet. Not yet.

-JDT-

Developing Stories, Part 2

Continued from Part 1

My search for better and easier ways to plan and develop stories led me from simple structure to a more complex system called The Hero’s Journey. It’s the same basic idea – a series of events which you will plan into the story to develop it to its fullest potential and audience satisfaction – but it came in more granular portions. Instead of five milestones sprinkled among four parts of a story, The Hero’s Journey was composed of twelve markers, and especially at the beginning, provided finer guidance along the story’s path.

I decided this was the thing I’d been looking for all along. Until I realized it wasn’t.

That realization came in an accidental encounter on the Internet with another website, similar to StoryFix.com, which is How-To-Write-A-Book-Now.com. The site is run by author Glenn Strathy, who advocates use of Dramatica theory of story for story development and planning.

The first thing I learned about were the development of an outline using Dramatica theory.

Outline? Did you say “outline”? I couldn’t resist. Any method to outline a book which I’ve not seen before is going to catch my eye, and hold my attention. And it did.

I learned how to start with something called a “story goal” – the thing the protagonist wants to achieve or the problem he needs to solve. Okay, pretty standard I guess. But I then realized this isn’t exactly the same as the “premise” – in fact, it holds a much more intense and thought-provoking element to it. Because the story goal doesn’t stand alone. Like many other elements in Dramatica story theory, it’s part of a set of dynamic plot element pairs.

The story goal is good – you have something your protagonist wants to achieve, obtain or a problem he needs to solve. Dramatica also expects you to define the consequence, though, which is something I’d not done before (for some reason; stop laughing). The consequence is just what it says, the consequence(s) of not achieving the story goal. In other words, the stakes of the game. They must be high. I’ve heard it over and over again, but somehow, this presentation made it all clear.

By looking at the goal, I could understand how to make the consequences worse, how to raise the stakes for the players. I’m not great at this yet, but I’m still working on it and I have hope. Still, the exhilaration of new learning struck like a rattle snake and I could feel it coursing through my bloodstream.

I learned the other dynamic pairs, too. Requirements to achieve the goal, the forewarnings indicating the consequence is nigh, the costs and dividends to the characters seeking the goal, the prerequisites and preconditions which are minor achievements and setbacks respectively. Together, they make up the events which will fill the story throughlines and fill it out.

Uh…throughlines? What’s a throughline?

Onward I charged, until I learned there are, in Dramatica theory, four perspectives on the story you’re telling. The overall story view is the Overall Throughline. It’s the story from the 30,000 foot view, or an omniscient viewpoint. The Main Character throughline is the subjective viewpoint, the one we see through the eyes of the main character (which is not always the protagonist). The third view of the story comes from the Impact Character Throughline, which may or may not be the antagonist in the story, but is the character or force with the greatest impact on the main character. And finally, the Relationship Throughline is the view as seen from the tension between the main and impact characters, the elements which compose their relationship to one another and how that affects the overall story.

Wow! So, I had in my hands a new way to develop stories, and a new set of tools for doing so. I didn’t know much about Dramatica beyond the software I tried to use back in 2004, which I hated. But I was excited about this theory! So off I ran to apply the principles I’d learned to the story I’d just outlined in The Hero’s Journey template.

I was dumbfounded at the depth the Dramatica elements added to the story. Most of the throughlines were already in place. At least, I believed so when I tried this the first time several weeks ago. But now? Now I’m not so sure. I want every much to run through the process again, now that I’ve done this with several more stories, and while it’s still in outline form to see what shakes out.

Okay, great! With my story throughlines targeted, now all I need are the four signposts for each one!

Wait…four what? What’s a signpost?

Find out next time…

-JDT-

Developing Stories, Part 1

I’ve been learning a lot about story for a long time now.

I don’t know when I first started down this path, but I can tell you it was in late 2009. My friend and fellow author Bryce Beattie pointed me toward a site called StoryFix.com, and I found someone there in Larry Brooks who opened my eyes to something I’d not been able to get my head around since high school: The three-act story structure.

Basically, that got me started on studying the structure of a story. I practiced using the method Larry posited – which actually wasn’t three-act, but four-part story structure – and trying to build stories around it so they’d have all the key elements in place. I knew, deep in my heart, this is what I’d been lacking as a writer all along.

When I could dissect a movie on the fly and identify the milestones as they came, and I could teach this to my young children (at the time, eight and four respectively), I knew I had the hang of it. With a story idea in mind, I dropped one of my previously planned novels onto the structure and proceeded to hang the elements where I thought they belonged.

That book turned into my novel Scales of Justice, and it was, in my mind, the best thing I’d written to that point in my life. I had all the elements, even if I missed some of the timing (I think my “set up” ran long, but I got a hook and inciting incident in early.)

It turned out, it wasn’t the best book it could be anyway, but that probably wouldn’t be the case no matter what. A reviewer on Amazon showed me I’d missed the obvious ending to my novel somehow and so, it ends much flatter than it should. But before that, I thought I had something special. It’s just there was… something missing. Something I couldn’t quite put my finger on.

While I worked on Scales, I continued seeking more and more in-depth story structure information, believing somehow I must have missed something. What I stumbled on was The Hero’s Journey, a story model by Chris Vogler, based on the work of Joseph Campbell in his study of myth and story from around the world called The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Vogler’s work, The Writer’s Journey, condensed and clarified the ideas in Campbell’s work to a workable degree. (I found out about The Hero’s Journey model while reading James Scott Bell’s excellent Plot and Structure, in which he points out how The Hero’s Journey correlates and integrates to the standard three-act structure he uses. Magnificent!)

Armed with yet another story planning method, I searched the web until I found an outline template I could use to work up a story in The Hero’s Journey model. So, with another story already planned for the most part in my head, I sat down with my wife and we hammered through THJ outline form, filling in the pieces of my story and developing it further until we felt we had something.

As a matter of practice, I also took my beloved four-part story structure map and its five milestones and have always used THJ in conjunction. Since two are better than one, I figured I’d have a well rounded story in place when completed. And I did.

But, it wasn’t as well rounded as it could be, and when I discovered still another method a few months later which added and compounded the depth and richness of a story, I was floored. I had to have it. I began to incorporate it right away.

More on that next time.

-JDT-