Christopher J. wrote:
I'd love to hear about how you tackle story design, something you talk a lot about. Thanks again for the series!
Thanks, Christopher. I blog quite a lot on this topic… typically to avoid doing productive work…
This post in particular talks a bit about my current process (which is evolving yet again, though…).
Basically, it's really freaking hard I've likened story design to trying to solve a puzzle, while cutting the pieces yourself… and also painting the picture on the front. (In a tornado.)
One is simultaneously trying to:
- progress, converge, and ultimately resolve all the dozens of existing story threads and character arcs;
- integrate the scene ideas and story turns I already have in mind and make them work, individually and - much more vexatiously - together;
- but then come up with much, much, much, much, much, much better and stronger ideas for scenes and story turns;
- make all these scenes and turns, and the sequence of them, have the following indispensable qualities:
- Every event must be *causal* i.e. make sense and happen because of what came before it; and
- Every character action must be *motivated* i.e. make sense and happen because *the character* (not the author) needed (or had no choice but) to do it for reasons of his or her own;
- Each *also* needs to invisibly do my bidding as the Puppetmaster (aka storyteller), which mainly involves conforming to and leveraging as much as possible all the core dramatic principles - such as:
- clear and gigantic STAKES - both global (i.e. for the world) and personal (i.e. for the character),
- empathy and peril,
- cycling and modulation of positive/negative value changes (to avoid repetitiousness of beats) - aka reversals,
- managing pacing - letting readers, and characters, catch their breath periodically; but, even more importantly, not screeching the action to a halt with long narrative interruptions (a constant and terrible sin of mine),
- *always* pushing the story forward (ditto),
- overall, across the story, *building* the stakes, drama, peril, and risks - always progressively increasing the need for characters to dig down, dare all, and recommit, leading to escalating points of no return,
- mystery concealing rather than over-revealing information,
- showing not telling,
- dramatizing exposition,
- keeping dialogue reasonably subtextual, rather than on-the-nose (OTN) - characters saying exactly what they think and feel is dramatic death,
- trying to comply with Rule #2: "The progress toward [solving the problem of the story] must be direct and all incidents essential either in the advancement or disruption of that progress." (thank you, Doctor Mamet),
- as well as Rule #1: "The total art of the dramatist [is] to make the audience want to know what is going to happen next." (thanks again),
- DILEMMA - aka character choice under pressure - aka revelation of *true* character - as a character simply IS the choices he makes when everything's on the line and he can't have it both ways (courtesy of Professor McKee),
- active protagonists,
- action scenes that *expose* character and have emotional stakes rather than crap just blowing up, which no one does, or could, care about (via Saint Martell)…
- and, finally, if not most important, then perhaps most difficult, also, to the greatest extent possible, keeping everything extremely closely "on theme" - i.e. nothing happens that doesn't either argue for, or argue against, or at very least have something to do with, the core thematic concerns, the "controlling idea", the DNA, of the series.
- Finally finally (finally!), trying to do something with - or pay attention to, or (probably best) just pick and choose some useful bits from - the principles (or I'd better say theories, since no one agrees on anything) of dramatic structure: good-ole three-act, thesis/antithesis/synthesis, three-act-with-a-midpoint, McKee's "story design in five parts" (Inciting Incident, Progressive Complication, Crisis, Climax, & Resolution), Yorke's five-part "Into the Woods" story ur-shape, the 12 stages of the Hero's Journey (from Campbell and Vogler), the 15 "essential" beats from the Zack Snyder beat sheet, Booker's Quest story structure…
A few things appear essential - no one seems seriously to be arguing against the need for an Inciting Incident, and I'm personally a sucker for a good Dark Night of the Soul/All Is Lost Moment - but really the only way through this thicket seems to be to read and understand as much theory as I can, then pick and choose bits of paradigm that work for me and the work at hand… then subordinate it all to the needs of the story.
But it's also, I think, worth not ignoring this stuff - it didn't come from nowhere, and seems to have its roots in how humans learn and grow and struggle, the psychology and archetypes of the human mind. And I still do believe, and expect I'll go to my grave believing, that stories are how we learn to be human (and how we find order and meaning in a random, chaotic, and terrifying universe).
I don't know whether any of that's interesting, or helpful. :) I do know I'm not very good at it all yet - a fact hammered home when I reread the series between books, and catalogue my legions of failings, solecisms, and transgressions against drama, storytelling, and the reader…