Monday, 16 January 2017

Top Ten Tips for Writing Stories that Grip

Over time, I have been fortunate to work with some famous people who have made their money from stories (for details, see the In Conversation With... section of The Story Book). 

From the insights of these luminaries, from my own experiences getting published, from my work as a story consultant, from working on films and from undertaking my PhD in narrative theory, and of course from writing The Story Bookhere - in no particular order - are my top ten tips for awesome stories!

1) Don't try to learn 'how to write'. No course or method or guru can tell you how to write. There's only one person who can tell your story your way, and that's YOU! Those who make it have self-confidence in writing what THEY think is great. Yes, learn the primary colours of story - where the power comes from, how they work, why they exist, how they resonate with the human mind, what factors are present in all great stories - then use that understanding to get the most you possibly can out of the story ideas your heart gives you. Specifically...

2) ...understand story structure, because it is part of the craft, but structure is NOT a starting point for story development, so don't let it drive you. Let your creative brilliance run wild and free and write from the heart in creating your story, then later, use your understanding of structure in problem-solving, tightening and optimising the story. Never use one of those formulaic structural methods as a starting point or a rule-base for development. 

3) Write every day. Make it a priority, build it into your schedule and discipline yourself to it. I KNOW that is hard - believe me, I've been there - so set yourself a manageable word count and make sure you achieve that. Just 500 words a day - that's a single side of A4 - will get you 100,000 words in 7 months (and that is with Sundays off. Luxury!). Follow that with five months of editing and polishing - that's a book in a year, no problem. Self-discipline, folks. Yes, being a writer is glamorous to talk about and a romantic place for dreamers, but the ones who make it tend to work very hard, are professional and productive. Don't wait for that mythical year off you're promising yourself. Don't wait for that writers' retreat or the day you'll be ready. Every successful writer gets their head down, and writes every day. 

4) Sadly, if you want commercial success, you must also understand GENRE. It's far more important than it should be and it's critical you understand why. I wish it wasn't true - but it is. Of course, if you don't care about commercial success and simply want to be true to your art - brilliant. Ignore genre. But if you want to sell your material, it's a big factor. See my blog on Why Genre is Important to Success .

5) Most of all, understand SUBTEXT. And understand the creative behaviours that embed subtext. Subtext is the substance of story. If you have no subtext you have no story. The more subtext there is, the better the story is perceived to be by the audience. Fact. See my blog on Subtext - the Most Critical Tool in the Story Teller's Box .

6) Don't think about 'plot' and 'character' as separate things. What a character does when they take action will define their true character and what a character does when they take action will also provide the action. Think more in terms of character behaviours as these define both plot and character. Get this unity of plot and character, and your story telling will be tight, cohesive and dimensional. See my blog post on Character and Plot - One and the Same Thing.

7) Understand Character Growth. All the greatest stories show us a character learning and changing and growing through the experiences of the story events (or failing to learn and grow, but the lessons are still evident to us as readers/viewer). Try to ensure that at least one character is offered the opportunity to climb the ladder of life. You will find that this growth is actually the true power of your real story, and this is what resonates with your  audience and elevates your story. Character growth - the story element that defines every great story. See my blogpost on The Subtext of Character Growth. Coupled with this...

8) ...true character only emerges when you put your protagonists under pressure to make difficult decisions. For a mountaineer to climb a mountain might be a huge challenge, but  he'd be delighted to do it, so the conflict is not meaningful and therefore the story is not meaningful. However, for a mountaineer to climb a mountain to save a stranded friend... risking his own life whilst his children are begging him not to go and his wife says she’s leaving if he does... that is a story. Pressure comes from dilemma, not odds. A choice of evils is more story-powerful than the most spectacular of massive intergalactic battles. Conflict is often found more in the moral stance and the fight for that moral position than from fielding a billion storm-troopers or a psychotic Dr Evil. See my post on Morality in Stories for more. 

9) Be professional and unemotional in marketing your book. It's really important to learn to handle rejection (there WILL be rejection...) otherwise you will never send anything off. I know many, many writers who develop their stories... then develop and develop some more... and the real reason they never finish is because they are so scared of the Judgement Day that comes the moment they admit it’s done. There's no easy way. You have to grasp the nettle and get on with it. Put your ego to one side (the vast majority of rejections are nothing to do with your ability or the literary merit of your story); dig deep, be strong, and put it out there. When I asked John Sullivan for his advice for aspiring writers he gave me this series of steps that should define a writer’s life:

    A) Write the best stuff you can.
    B) Send it off.
    C) Go to A.

It ain't rocket science! But you do need to be brave, or you won't get anywhere. And once it's gone, the worst thing you can do is sit wringing your hands by the letterbox, desperate for a response. Send it off and move on! Fire and forget! Get busy with the next one, and when rejection comes it won't bother you so much; you'll be deeply involved in the new stuff and that makes handling rejection OR success that much easier. 

As soon as your material is good enough, you WILL get a deal. The commercial world is *desperate* for great stories. Do something better than most and it will find a home. Are you productive? Are YOU sending stuff off? Or are you procrastinating and trying to wait until everything is perfect?  

9.a.) I know I said 10 things, but I have one more important point here. if you want to make films and be a scriptwriter... you could barely be making life harder for yourself. Don't do it. Write books or plays first. The film industry is a walled garden, and the investment in a film is so large, they much prefer it if the stories they are considering have been validated by other media first. Memento and The Shawshank Redemption were both short stories published in magazines before they became mega-movies. The Hitchiker's Guide and War of the Worlds were radio plays. Andy Weir's The Martian was self-published on his website before it became a Ridley Scott classic. The vast majority of movies are books first. Getting published or getting a radio play broadcast or a theatre play on a town stage is far, far easier than trying to get a script away. 

10) All these things are addressed in detail in The Story Book, of course. Oh, before I go, I think there might be just one more tip we could all benefit from...

...Get off the internet and go do some writing!

Seriously... why are you still here?! Turn off the wifi! Go do some work!

Very best of luck with your stories. Oh, and call me when you get a film deal! 😉


Wednesday, 20 May 2015

If Shakespeare had an iPhone...

I would like to take this opportunity to flag up the brilliance of a tweet I got from Teri Carson (@dizzydentfilms). Not just for its humour, and of course succinctness, but because there is a lesson for us all in these 140 characters – a lesson in story delivery in subtext.

So, before I oversell the thing, here’s Teri’s tweet:

“Honk all you want. When I got shit to tweet I don't give a fuck what color the light is..”

You think… You read it again… The penny drops… You laugh. And you get a picture – a picture of a girl sitting in the car, waiting at a red. She’s texting on her phone, so she doesn’t see the traffic lights change, and there is a guy in the truck behind getting mad with her, and he starts letting her know about it by leaning on the horn. She is unmoved and is determined to finish her tweet before pulling away...

Now look carefully at the words I used to describe the picture she created. None of the words I used appeared in her tweet. You had to make that whole scenario up for yourself from the verbal clues she gave you. And THAT is master storytelling.

You give the audience only signposts, and they do the rest themselves. Stories are not about giving information, but holding it back and having the audience project it for themselves.

Thank you Teri! Love it!

If you'd like more of Teri, go to her blog at and of course, she’s always welcoming followers on Twitter…

For an entire chapter on all types of story subtext and the methods writers use to embed subtext in their stories (and another example like this one, taken from a newspaper small ads column and which I find hilarious) you might like to consider The Story Book, Chapter 4.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

The Delivered Story; The Interpreted Story

Whenever you absorb a story, you are actually experiencing *two* stories. Or at least, two versions of the same story. This is well accepted in academia, and was first documented by the Russian Formalists in the 1920s, (Victor Shlovsky, Vladmir Propp et al) who called the first version the Syuzhet and the second version the Fabula. Great words, but let me try to simplify it to what can help a writer deliver better story today. 

The first version is the delivered story. All the tangible sensory stimulation you receive from having the story communicated to your eyes and ears. So, in a film, this includes the music, images, dialogue, action, character behaviours, the poster, the trailer, the reviews you read, the blog-post, your knowledge of the star's personal life - everything that contributes to what you think about the story.

In a book, of course, the written words are the total sensory stimulation. Here is, allegedly, the shortest novel ever written:

"For Sale. Baby's Shoes. Never Worn."

In this case, the total delivered story is just those six words (and whatever else you might overlay if you know it was (allegedly) written by Earnest Hemmingway).

But of course, there is more to every story than just what you are delivered. There is the second level - the Fabula - or the interpreted story. This is everything you know from the delivered story PLUS everything else you add to the delivered story in order to make a complete production of it in your own head.

    The delivered story
 + Your conclusions from understanding the delivered story
== The Interpreted story

The delivered story is the same for everyone; it is objective and denoted. We can point out all its elements and quantify it. 

The interpreted story is a unique and individual production, produced in full inside the head of the receiver as a result of interpreting the delivered story.

The skill of a writer is in crafting the delivered story - that's what you write - but just enough so most target audience will fill the knowledge gaps in similar ways, and create for themselves in mind a wonderful, complete interpreted version of your story.

So, what interpreted story did you get from Hemmingway's six words? most people get a sad story comprising a child tragically lost in pregnancy or shortly afterwards. If pushed, they can describe the couple and envisage numerous events going back to their meeting, the circumstances surrounding the conception, the onset of the tragic problem, what happens afterwards and so forth; but the interpretation is essentially the same for most people.

However, those six words could just as easily have spawned a comedy story in mind, in which the grandparents have bought the new born baby a pair of baby shoes, only to find that the kid has giant feet, coming in at size nine from birth, causing much mirth and a driving need to sell the shoes.

However, very few people get anything like that from this delivered story. We all interpret the knowledge gaps in the same way... and that is master storytelling.

As a writer, the thing to bear in mind here is that we humans *love* to fill in knowledge gaps. We adore puzzles and questions and projecting and speculating and subtext and getting the right answer. As a writer, your job is to craft knowledge gaps. They are the tool of your trade. You bed knowledge gaps into your delivered story in order to inspire interpretation; in order that that the complete, interpreted story is found in the subtext and built beautifully in the mind of your audience.THAT is the skill of a fine writer. 

So learn about knowledge gaps. Learn about the relationship between gaps and subtext. Learn about the relationship between gaps and morality.

The more knowledge gaps there are, the more your audience will love your stories.

Monday, 3 November 2014

What is a Story?

When I first started my research degree in story theory, the thing that surprised me most was that there is no single definition for the term 'story'. At least, not one that all the authorities agree, and certainly not one which would cover all the examples that you and I would intuitively agree are 'stories'. 2,300 years since Aristotle and even the dictionary isn't right. 

Of course, like every other narratologist, I have come up with my own definition, but for this blog post, I won't be trying to sell you that. I thought I would use this space to capture the top lines that most story boffins DO agree. The common elements that comprise the mainstream and which are useful to know if you are a writer of fiction. Please note the scope I'm setting. I'm not trying to include 'the story of medicine' or a poem or a recipe or an argument or the story of 'last summer' or Japanese Kishotenketsu conflict free narratives, or
all the myriad other things that may or may not be stories. I'm talking about a definition that will help an aspiring writer do good things for their story telling by understanding where the centre of the mainstream flows. 

So, let's look at the simple contents of a generally 'good' story: 

1) The vast majority of fine stories feature a protagonist trying to achieve a goal. His/her world is thrown out of balance, and this has given the protagonist clear aims. By the end of the story we know whether the protagonist achieved his or her aims or not. This is usually the main plot; the spine of the story. Everything in a story is linked to this spine and contributes to it.  

2) To make the protagonist's journey interesting, s/he is faced by obstacles that must be overcome in order to achieve this aim or aims. By 'obstacles' I don't simply mean a 'bad guy', I mean any forces of antagonism that directly oppose the protagonist's progress towards those aims. Antagonistic forces basically come in four flavours: internal (mental self-doubt, delusion, cowardice...); relationship (conflict with other people); institutional (conflict with, for example, police, hospitals, schools, councils, bookmakers...); and external (conflict with uncontrollable factors, such as the weather, acts of God, the actions of random strangers...). For more on antagonism see my blog Conflict and the Word Count.  

Also note that the forces of antagonism are fundamental to the power of your story. The good guys can only be as impressive as the forces they have to overcome, so building strong, believable, clever, powerful antagonism is a very important part of a fine story. It should appear absolutely impossible that the protagonist can find a way to win. Often writers are lovely people; gentle pacifists who greatly empower their good guys and unconsciously limit their baddies from the get-go, because they love their hero and hate their bad guy. See my blog post on Antagonism here.  

Now, I could stop here. Strictly speaking, that is it. Those are the two points that define the substance of a story. Protagonist with a clear aim; antagonism standing firmly in his way; an irresistible force firmly set in direct conflict with an immovable object.

However, let's add a few more points that raise a basic 'story' to a 'much better' story. 

3) Generally, a fine story will depict the protagonist changing and learning and growing across the course of his or her story experiences. By the end of the story, the protagonist's 'life values' would have significantly changed - for better or for worse - when compared to their starting position. The poor village boy decides to take on the dragon that terrorises the community. He slays the dragon, and ends up with a princess, a castle and a shed load of money. 

This is known as character growth, and characterises most fine stories. Better still, the very finest stories have a protagonist who learns a lesson about morality (see 4, below) and applies this moral learning to overcome the antagonistic forces and thereby achieve the character growth. More on Character Growth here

4) A good story is usually a moral argument. The story broadly addresses the questions: how should a person lead their life? And how should a person treat others? The moral issue provides the theme of the story, and the 'bad guy', if there is one, is often not simply out-and-out evil. He is adopting an understandable (but self-centred, misguided or disagreeable) stance on the moral issue. In Juno, for example, the moral issue is 'teenage pregnancy'. The eponymous teenage protagonist must take responsibility for her pregnancy; the conflict comes from the moral position adopted by the other characters, and the tension comes from the decisions Juno has no choice but to make. Often the protagonist, in their desperation to find answers, becomes immoral themselves. For more on this, see my blog post on Morality in Stories

5) Last, but by no means least, the finest stories are delivered in subtext. What is written by the author is a minimalist set of cues and triggers that cause the whole story to be imagined in the mind of the receiver of that story. The gaps between the minimalist cues and the imagined story generated in mind are the solid gold of brilliant story telling. It's the subtext that provides the resonance with a human mind and gives a story the implicit grip and engagement that fascinates. More on my favourite topic of Subtext can be found here

In evolutionary terms, in the real world, it is gaps in our knowledge that ring alarm bells and make us emotional. A knowledge gap is a sign of risk or opportunity and arouses us until the knowledge gap is filled. Gaps in stories trigger these same emotions, and this is where the absolute substance of story power resides. A knowledge gap in your writing generates subtext for your reader. Read my book Story Theory for more on these deep waters!

What does this mean to you?

And that's it! Check in with these basics in your own writing. It's not rocket science, and there's a lot to be said for keeping it simple. If you keep the protagonist and his aims to the fore, ensure everything is relevant to these aims; and set them head on against conflicts provided by the forces of antagonism, then show us how the protagonist overcomes the forces of antagonism and how s/he grows in achieving those aims by the end, you will probably have a fine story in front of you.

Try this with your story: Fill in the bits between the chevrons: 

My story is about <name of protagonist>. His/her goal is to <insert aims here>. However, s/he is blocked in achieving these goals by <insert forces of antagonism here>. Only one of the protagonist or forces of antagonism can win; their aims are mutually exclusive. At climax, <insert key conflict event> happens, leading to <resolution for protagonist happy or tragic ending>, depicting a significant <positive or negative> change in life values and moral understanding for the protagonist.

These are the basics. If you cannot easily fill in the gaps, it is more than likely that your story has problems you need to solve before heading into first draft. A common example would be if you aren't sure who your protagonist is. In this case, you don't know whose story you are telling and you aren't ready to write it. 

For more on all of this, see my book The Story Book; available the world over on Kindle, published in hard copy in the UK and in Chinese shortly in China!  

Best of luck!

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

The Rise of the Arrogant Artist

Have you noticed that a lot of the most successful people seem self-centred? A little arrogant, perhaps? Obnoxious, even. Is there something we humble, peaceful, generous, gentle arty types can learn from this..?

When I meet successful writers, they often seem to have an unshakeable belief that they are right. 'Here's my art,' they say. 'That's what you're getting, World, and I couldn't care less what you think about it.'

That's not true, of course. The artist cares deeply about what people think, and often they are, underneath it all, humble, peaceful people like the rest of us. However, they appear to have an arrogance because their art is pushed out by a passionate, blinkered drive that makes it what it is and, for that artist, the product cannot possibly be any other way. It's not arrogance, it's ownership. It's taking responsibility. And that's exactly the way it should be. For art to satisfy, it must first satisfy the vision and inspiration of the artist. The seeds of creativity that drove the artist to devote blood, sweat, tears and years must be realised with integrity for there to be any point in doing it. 

If you think about it, once the artwork is available to appreciate, the artist shouldn't really have any say in what people think. It is what it is. The wise and productive artist puts it out there - publish and be damned! - gives himself or herself a quiet hug for keeping that integrity, then moves on to the next one. 'Fire and forget' is my motto. If your artwork happens to resonate with a proportion of the population, great! You will make some money. If it doesn't, you've satisfied your soul... and that is the only audience that matters.  

Success is not measured in money. It's measured in fulfilment. And what you should aim for, in an ideal world... is both. 

So what's the point in learning stuff about my art if I must simply satisfy my heart? 

Good question. The problem with the above is that most writers are not able to bring their story to life in a way that satisfies their inspiration. Once it's done and they read it back, it doesn't quite deliver what they felt inside. And that is really frustrating. So they rewrite. Then re-read. And it kinda works. So they rewrite. And re-read. And rewriting is fine. Essential. Unavoidable. But it isn't a very good 'method' for problem solving. Three or four rewrites and six months later, you've forgotten what the hell gave the thing a beating heart in the first place, and it starts to go cold and become really hard work. Until it dies on a shelf as you put it down to experience and move on to something new and exciting. 

When a writer asks me to read their story and tell them what I think, I refuse. I won't do it. I ask them what they think, because that's what's important. It must stay in their ownership. I get them to pitch a short version of the story. I ask them questions about the characters and motivations and, bit by bit, I try to get them excited again by connecting them back up with the original inspiration. I then talk to them about specific areas of story power and story theory that will help them understand where the core power is. That way they can find out what is bugging them, understand how that might be addressed and then stay on the spine of their inspiration. And that can be learned. Like a painter can understand the limits and potential of different paper, brushes, colours and media, and a composer can learn the limits of an instrument or an orchestra, so a writer can learn where the power of a story lies and can use that knowledge to to remain faithful to the inspiration across the long haul of writing it down. 

And you mustn't be scared to put it out there! So many of my clients are really just after reassurance. They want to rewrite forever rather than face the judgement that surely follows completion. Rejection... terrifying. Best just never finish, right...?! 

If you want success (whatever success means to you) you MUST have the courage of your artistic convictions. There's only one person who can tell your story and that is YOU. There's only one person who can decide if your story is right or not and that is YOU. If you love it, then it's right. 

So be arrogant. Be superior. You ARE the God of your story, and you mustn't be ashamed of that. Be the God. This is your art and you must guard its integrity because You Know Best. In fact, ONLY you know the definitive truth of your story, so it's not arrogance, it's standing up for what you know to be right. 

Yes, learn the craft of story, because that will help you to identify the inspiration in your story and keep true to it through the long haul of writing it down. But remember this: 

Nobody can give you advice on how your story should go. the moment they do, it is no longer your story. 

Monday, 24 February 2014

Have I Got News For You...

I am very excited to announce the birth of my new book, entitled Story Theory: the psychological and linguistic foundations to how stories work. It is published NOW. On Amazon in the US Here. And on Amazon in the UK here. It got it's first 5 star review within 24 hours, I'm pleased and relieved to say, and I didn't write the review and I don't know the person who did!

That decidedly un-snappy title is deliberate, because I want to set your expectations. This book is effectively my PhD thesis for the layman. For those with an interest in story theory and the academic side, this is solid gold. You'll be luxuriating in the sheer geeky nerdiness of it all for months. For those who want practical advice for writers.... hmmm. Not so much. You will only want the second half of the book, as this  provides some unique story understanding to take into your own work. 

Story Theory is original thinking and 'new knowledge' that you will not find anywhere else. However, this is not a practical 'how to' book... 

Here's what Stewart Ferris, the MD of the publishing company that published some of my earlier books, has to say about it: 

“An intelligent and thought-provoking book that shows not only where stories come from, but how to harness the power of story, the techniques writers can use to enhance that power, and how stories are an integral part of what makes us human.”

Which is about right, but make no mistake - it's an academic read. I'm telling you this, because I don't want to sell it to anyone who wouldn't enjoy it. Go directly to The Story Book for more practical information. 

I hope you love it. Let me know! 


Thursday, 14 November 2013

Why is Genre Important to Success?

Genre is a real tricky devil... and absolutely key to your success. 

When we start out on a writing career, we don't see it like that. Genre is a restriction. Something to at least ignore and probably rebel against. You gotta be unique. You're going to prove yourself by doing something different. The only reason you would ever want to know the rules is so you can break ‘em good.

Weeellll, it's not quite like that. You do need originality but you also need to be professional. There's definitely a place for you to be different, but you also need to be commercially switched on. And it is through understanding the role of Genre that you can know the time and place to be creative and different and the time and place to be compliant and run on the rails of genre. 

Every story divides into two 'levels'. One level allows you to show how professional you are and how you have mastered your craft. The other level allows you to be different and show off your creative originality. These levels are firstly, the top level arcs across the whole story (what the story is about) and, secondly, the detailed content of the sequences (how that story is told).

  1. The top level arcs, defining what your story is about, should be fixed within a genre. 
  2. The detail of the individual scenes/chapters - how you deliver those arcs - can change infinitely with your uniquely different creative brilliance. 

For example, if I tell you I'm going to go to Paris, you know exactly what I'm doing overall. The top level arc is a clear message, instantly understood. You will know if I've achieved my aim if I get to Paris. However, the detail of how I get there - the scenes along the way - involving bike, walk, plane, train, hitch, characters, disasters comedy - whatever - how it takes place in the detail is infinitely up for creative originality.  

My creative brilliance is separated from a clear genre message. The rules of the genre are obeyed, buy my originality can express itself within that genre. 

The trick is to define the top level material – the big picture that can be marketed – smack down the middle. Know your genre, be cynical and professional and and live in the middle of the mainstream. Really. Do it. Make it a rule (you know I don’t like rules…) Then within those boundaries, in the detail of how you deliver your story chapter by chapter, scene by scene, be as inventive and different as you possibly can. 

Why not be different at the top level? Let's say, for example, that I am the most brilliantly amazing talented soccer player the world has ever seen, but I want to show the world just how brilliant and original I am, so I refuse to be limited by the laws of the game and I keep dribbling the ball (brilliantly) over the lines and out of play, then guess what… I'm a useless footballer. Hold on — I thought we agreed I am the very best footballer? (Thank you.) Yes, David, you are. But commercially, you're utterly worthless if you won't accept the genre rules. 

I hate that it’s true, but I could barely give you a single piece of better advice if you want commercial success. Become professional and understand your craft within the context of a genre, and then become creatively brilliant and mind-blowingly original within the boundaries of that genre.  

Why? Because we, the public, as consumers, like to know what we're getting for our investment of time and money in a story. I don't go and see a film randomly or pick up a book without any pre-commitment evaluation, and neither do you. You read reviews; you look at the marketing material; read the back cover; hear the interviews; look at the trailer, the poster, the title, the star, the character... You want to know if it's the kind of thing that will suit your likings. And that means genre.  

But before you get anywhere near getting assessed by the public, you as a writer, have to sell yourself and your material to an agent/publisher/producer. And I promise you, you are dead in the water if you don't have a clear genre. They will only take on a clearly defined genre piece, because they know they can't sell it if they don't. Look at it like this: When your publisher sells a book to a retailer, the first thing the buyer asks is: Which shelf does this go on? If it isn’t COMPLETELY obvious where it goes in the shop, then it’s rejected. Instantly. It could be brilliant but sorry, if the buyer can’t tell what genre it is, then neither can the public and it won’t sell, so he won’t buy it from the publisher. 

Don't forget, the retailers/buyers don’t read the content. They look at that top level marketing-by-genre potential and decide 100% on that whether they can sell it. The content is secondary and entirely irrelevant to the sales process. Hand the buyer a Lee Child novel and – boom. No problem. He knows where that goes. He know the public will understand this book and what you get from it. They will be looking at the Crime section in the first place, because that's the kind of thing they like, and if you put the right cover design and title and author and character under their nose... Ka-ching! Lee Child is bang in the middle of a genre and he writes a book a year in that same genre, with an unchanging lead character and has done so for the past 18 years. And that equals commercial success (to the tune of close to 20 million novels sold). He never EVER tries to be clever with genre. And that’s the cleverest thing he can do. 

Copy Lee. Set yourself apart from the competition by living exactly in the middle of the mainstream - THAT is genuine originality, because there’s nobody there. They’re all trying to be really clever out on the edges, inventing new genres and trying to be 'different'. Ironically, the middle of the fairway is the place where you find space to define yourself. Living there makes you different. Go to the centre of the mainstream. That will really set you apart. 

(My full conversations with Lee Child are featured in The Story Book.) 

Of course, if you aren't too bothered about commercial success, fine. Do what you like. But if you want to sell stories and make money, have no doubt about it: the commercial decisions are made firstly by genre, and then by content. Be absolutely clear and down-the-middle with your genre - what kind of story it is. Which shelf you live on. Then be unique and original and brilliant and different in the content - how you deliver that story.

Thursday, 25 April 2013

Character Growth (When You Don't Want Your Characters to Grow)

If you follow my work, you will know that it is an attribute of the very finest stories - the ones that win Oscars, BAFTAs, Booker prizes and the like - that a character changes and learns and grows across the course of a story. (For more detail on this, read my Character Growth Blog .)

However, what if you don't want your characters to grow? What if you need them to stay exactly as they are in order to write a sequel? How can we use the power of character growth, but not actually allow any character growth? 

John Sullivan told me, in discussion about his wonderful series, Only Fools and Horses, that the last thing he needed was character growth, because when writing a series across years and dozens of episodes, character growth can trap the characters against a ceiling. They can only grow so far, then they become fulfilled. They have undergone the change that made them so interesting, and have nowhere else to go. 

That is why a truly great story - great because it does feature character growth - is often followed by a poor sequel. The protagonist has already made his life journey, is fulfilled and has learned his life lessons, so there is no room for further growth in the sequel, so the second story disappoints.

Now, John made a big deal of being 'uneducated' in 'how to write', and had, shall we say, a significant distrust of story theory (which made our conversations somewhat interesting...), but it didn't stop him from being brilliant. He played on character growth with every episode of Only Fools and Horses, without letting his characters actually grow. He played on the pathos of failing to grow by having Del Boy and Rodney offered growth... but fail to improve themselves, and despite their efforts and the golden opportunities offered, they endlessly fell back down life’s ladder. This was brilliant story-telling, because it gave us, in the audience, a chance to see the decisions they should take to advance themselves (so in this sense there was character growth in the story), but their failure to learn and grow was both hilarious and frustrating... and allowed them to slide back down to square one so the beginning of the next episode could always start with a clean slate.

John would also use forms of character growth that didn't fundamentally change the character of the character, if you see what I mean. So, for example, Del Boy having a baby was an emotional plot line that would be considered as a form of character growth, but still meant he could be precisely the same Del Boy at the beginning of the following week without any change to his fundamental character.

I had a similar conversation with Lee Child. For his Jack Reacher novels, the eponymous protagonist had to end up exactly where he started if Lee was to produce another book to the same successful recipe (as he has done every single year for the last 17 years).  Interestingly - given the success of his series - Lee often used character growth without allowing Jack Reacher ultimately to grow. Jack Reacher would begin the story as a drifter, wandering into a new town. During the course of a story that has him work for good as a vigilante against the corrupt authorities, the criminals and the bullies, he would perhaps find a girl, fall in love, become integrated into a community, become appreciated as a local hero... At the end of the story he might be lying in bed with a woman who loves him, children who worship him, a mayor who wants him to join the city council... but inevitably, he would walk away from all this good stuff that might fulfil him. He’d tear it all up, spirit himself away in dead of night, and hit the road, to drift on to the next town. It’s just the way he is... but this hugely convenient character flaw that had him dismantle all that lovely character growth also allowed him to return to the same starting point as he drifts into a new town to begin his next adventure. Expert story telling. 

The other fine dynamic for using character growth but avoiding protagonist change is to allow a character other than the protagonist to learn a lesson and to grow. Look no further than my old favourite, Back to the Future, in which the protagonist, Marty McFly, doesn't grow at all. The character growth that gives the story all its amazing power comes from Marty's father - George McFly, who learns to be assertive - and changes his life fortunes to the positive as a result. But Marty remains the same. Imagine trying to continue George McFly's adventures into the sequel from that end-point. That would be really, really difficult, because he's ended this adventure having grown and become fulfilled. His story has been told, and there's no more that can be satisfactorily told. His journey to fulfilment is complete. That's why they moved on to the next generation and to a whole new character (Marty's son) to have someone they could advance up life's ladder. 

How can I use this in my writing?
So characters do not have to change and grow, but you can still use the power of character growth in five ways without your character growing: 

1) Have a secondary character change and grow (e.g., George McFly). 

2) Have very definite negative character growth in the antagonist (a tragedy shines a light on the positive learning and growth the character should have undergone). 

3) Offer your protagonist the opportunity to grow... but then have him turn it down (Jack Reacher), take something else he perceives to be of more value (e.g., money instead of the love that was on offer...), or fail to make the most of the opportunity (Del Boy). 

4) Use forms of character growth, such as marriage or parenthood, that do not implicitly change the character of the character. 

5) Use issues of morality to allow your character to grow through conflict in a specific area of life - carefully chosen so as not to impact areas of life used in the next in the series. So, for example, if your protagonist learns lessons about morality in dealing with relationships in one episode, and in drug dealing in the next, the growth in each doesn't affect the other. (See my post on Morality in Stories for more...) 

Much, much more on the inordinate power of character growth and learning in my book, How Stories Work (2014).

Thursday, 21 March 2013

The C Word...

The most obvious difference I see between the successful writers I have met and the aspiring writers is confidence. Confident writers are focused and productive. They say, “This is MY story. I’m writing it MY way, and I don’t care what anyone thinks.” They put their blinkers on, they put the hours into what they think is right, and deliver. After that it’s part luck and part commercial savvy that decides whether the final product attracts deals or not, but this is the right approach to any artistic endeavour. So if self-belief and an uncompromising approach to writing is the way to go, what can a writer do to get precious confidence without getting tainted by someone else’s directions?

The wrong thing to do, which I see a lot in the writers I work with, is to go on endless courses or read a pile of books on ‘How to Write’. They inevitably provide you with a set of rules that seem to apply to famous stories.  As soon as you buy into this, your story becomes driven by structure. It becomes a little unnatural and it loses its spark, and you have your creative instinct damaged by someone else’s rules.

That paragraph may seem odd coming from a man who gives courses to aspiring writers, but I am very careful in my approach. The word ‘education’ comes from the Latin ‘to draw out’, and for writers, with precious, highly personal inspiration, the difference between ‘drawing out’ and ‘forcing in’ is a critical distinction. In my experience, what writers really need is not help from the outside to change what is inside. It’s help in making the best possible use of the inspiration that is already there.

The questions writers really want answering are: “How do I make the most of my story ideas? How do I tell my story to its absolute best? How do I guide my ability to tell stories without damaging my natural talent? It takes me months to find out what’s bugging me in my story. How do I understand and solve story problems quickly and effectively? What gives one story power and another one not? What are the story tools that are available to writers that make stories grip and intrigue?”

There is only one person who can tell your story the right way, and that is YOU! Yes, you need knowledge of the craft of story so you are empowered to tell your story your way. Then you will also have the confidence to send it off and, importantly, take rejection knowing that what you’ve done is right irrespective of what the rejection letter says. Many of the writers I meet are hugely restricted by fear of rejection. So much so that they don’t even finish their work. Once it’s finished, it’s judgement day, and that is unbearable, so people keep writing and re-writing for years rather than face the dreaded judgement day. Again, confidence is the issue. If you know you have been true to yourself and true to your story, then you cease to care about external judgement. You listen, of course, in case something constructive resonates with you, but ultimately your own personal judgement is all that matters, so if others choose to reject it for their commercial agenda, so be it. Of course, rejection hurts, but it also goes with the territory, so grasping the rejection nettle and taking the consequences is something you simply have to do. John Sullivan gave me all you need to know about ‘How to be a writer’:

1) Write the best stuff you can.
2) Send it off.
3) Go to 1) 

What happens after that is out of your hands, so just go to 1) ,do 2) and forget it. Over time you will improve, and one day something will click. When it does, the weirdest thing happens: the pile of rejections become a massive badge of honour, and the glow you feel from success becomes magnified ten-fold by every single rejection you collected along the way.

Writers who become clients of mine are always surprised when we start work because I won’t read their story. I’m working to help the writer take responsibility for themselves; to find and shape the inspiration that comes from within. There’s only one right way to write your story, and that’s your way. If you think about it, there simply can’t be any other way to write your story. So forget the gurus and take responsibility. Yes, learn about story so you can squeeze the most from your ideas. Write every day, and say to yourself every day:

“My Story. My Way. And balls to the lot of you.”

Say it now. Say it out loud and mean it. Not only will you laugh at yourself, but take responsibility for your own development and suddenly life as a writer, and your path forwards from today, becomes very clear indeed...

Now. Go To 1).

Thursday, 7 March 2013

The Hunger Games - Story Analysis

!This Article Contains Spoilers! 

The Hunger Games is something of an enigma. As you watch it, you love it, and it kinda keeps you gripped, because the premise is so good, the characters are very strong, and the key question provides excellent tension. But it is low rated by public opinion on IMDB, and leaves you feeling a little unsatisfied by the end, although strangely attracted to it at the same time. Here's why. 

Firstly, let's outline that key question, because that is what gives it its attraction, and is also what lets it down, because they blow the power of that key question halfway through the story. 

In a futuristic world, The Hunger Games is an annual entertainment put on by the repressive government ('The Capitol'). Each of the twelve districts must donate two people between the age of 12 and 18 to the games. All 24 of these young people - 'tributes', as they are called - are set free in a televised terrain where they must kill or be killed on reality TV. Only one of the 24 can survive, and return home a hero. But it isn't simply survival of the fittest. If a tribute appeals to the audience, they can gain practical help in the field from 'sponsors', so having public appeal is also a key factor. The story follows the journey of the two tributes from District 12: Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). The tension in the story comes from our knowledge that, although their relationship is steadily growing and intensifying as the story progresses, only one of them can survive. As the story goes on, they begin to fall in love (or are they? Is it just a ploy by Katniss for sponsors?). The key question looms large over us and tightens its grip because we know, at some point one of them... is going to have to kill the other one. Excellent, excellent, gripping, powerful story. 

So why – oh, please why – did the writers have the ‘Capitol’ introduce a new rule halfway through the game by announcing: ‘actually, just this once, we’re going to let two people survive the games, provided they are from the same district.’ What the hell would you do a stupid thing like that for?! The story is now shot to pieces. Oh! Two can survive now! Well, I wonder who on earth THAT could be?! Might it turn out to be - ooh, let me think now - might it be... Katniss and Peeta (the only district partnership we even know the names of anyway!)? Now we know who will survive. The jeopardy is decimated. The tension is gone. The story is over. There is no other subtext to carry the story. Finished. Forget it. Go home.

And it's SO good up until then! It's a crime! What doubles my horror at the way they utterly blew the story power is that they then, just in time for the very end, they bring it back in again! The Capitol make another announcement: 'Errr. We've changed our minds, and now only one can survive.' 

Yes, it gives the story traction again, because now we feel the tension again - one of them will have to kill the other, but we've had an hour of knowing the outcome, so putting the doubt back in for what turns out to be ONE MINUTE is hardly going to rescue the thing. Clearly, the writers saw that they had to do this to create any kind of cleverness in the ending, so they put it back! Which just makes taking it out in the first place all the more unbelievable!  

What makes it even worse is that the Romeo and Juliet ending we are offered at climax (it's not what happens), whereby Katniss and Peeta choose to commit suicide together - thereby removing the power of the Capitol, making their love sublime for all eternity, making them into martyrs and causing a furious revolution in the districts - would have made this film an all time classic – BUT only if they'd kept that tension gripping us throughout. If the jeopardy had been there the whole way through we would have remained utterly gripped by the knowledge that one of them MUST die, doubly gripped as their relationship grows, and totally knocked out when they choose to commit suicide together to confound the Capitol and undermine their power. 

Now, I understand why they did it. They wanted to force a love story into the reality television show, and by announcing that two from the same district could survive, this was done, but the same 'love dynamic' could have been introduced by having Katniss, recognising the power of gaining sponsorship, feign her love for Peeta as a strategy all by herself. This would have shown her character growth and cleverness. As it is, that one announcement makes it a weak story and one of the worst errors and biggest missed opportunities I have ever seen. 

Apart from that trashed key question, the other serious issue is that there is no other subtext. All the story participants - the characters, the Capitol, the audience, author, you, me - everyone - know just as much as everyone else. Yes, the Capitol are sneaky and evil - but the moves they make are instantly communicated to all participants. There's no difference in the information held by the different story participants, Katniss and Peeta are trustworthy towards each other, even in the early stages when we know that they fell out in previous years and Katniss has good reason not to trust him now. Even the excellently dubious character who is to coach them - Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) - a previous winner of the games from District 12 - doesn't have an agenda and doesn't do anything dodgy, despite his clear dialogue with the Capitol. It just doesn't go anywhere. Despite the nature of the dog-eat-dog games, everyone knows everything that is going on. The human mind feeds off subtext - it's what we look for in a story, and this is why Hunger Games leaves a nagging hollow feeling you can't quite explain. 

Another negative is the real evil bad guy - President Snow. Katniss, through her anti-establishment rebellion, comes to his attention, and he shows his displeasure and orders that her 'hope' is removed. But nothing happens! There's no clear action taken as a result of the top man's displeasure or orders. No plan. No action. Nothing changes. The bad side of a story has to be proactive and threatening. Unfortunately, as it is... nothing changes as a result of his displeasure. 

I suspect - and hope - that the problems of this first film will be remedied across the course of the trilogy. The Harry Potter series is a little like this. Most of the individual films are rather difficult to enjoy in isolation (unless you've read the books), but the story power across the seven is awesome. Similarly with The Hunger Games, the potential is immense, and terrific foundations are now in place, but this first film, taken on its own, is not as powerful as it could have been with more subtext, and with the tension being allowed to persist throughout through our knowing that one of the two heroes must die at the hands of the other. If it had been allowed to persist, the lovers could still have been refused to play their game, choosing to live or die together, but refusing to kill one-another, but the power of the story could have been maintained throughout and magnified with this one simple story flaw being removed. 

Shame. Still - greatly enjoyable, and I suspect the trilogy will satisfy in story terms by the end. 

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

The Greeks have a Word for it...

I recently read Aristotle's 'Poetics' - the earliest known work of story theory. It was weird to be spoken to about story theory by a man who died 2,300 years ago, and extraordinary to find him speaking perfect sense in ways that still influence Hollywood today.

Let's see if a modern story can be seen to live up to Aristotle’s key elements, defined literally thousands of years ago. Here they are. An effective story has three essential elements:

  • Firstly, we have the Harmartia - a ‘fault’ or ‘flaw’ that disturbs the protagonist’s balance of life.
  • Secondly, the Anagnorisis - the ‘realisation’ of what this flaw means to the protagonist and the action that will be required to restore balance.
  • Thirdly, the Peripeteia - a reversal of expectation that pays off the story and brings the world back into balance at conclusion - but in a way that is unexpected (in the sense that it didn’t work out the way the protagonist intended and/or the audience thought it would).
So, taking Back to the Future as my example story, do these ancient structural imperatives hold up?

Marty McFly is going about his normal day when he is accidentally sent back in time (Harmartia - a fault which spins his world out of balance).

As he comes to terms with the challenges of getting home, he interferes with his parents' meeting when they were teenagers. Even if he could get home to 1985, he is going to be wiped from existence if his parents don't hook up. He realises (anagnorisis) he must get his parents to fall in love before he leaves, or else he will not exist in the future and will simply disappear.

Marty knows his Mum-to-be likes a strong man. And his Dad-do-be is weak. So Marty plans a big charade with his Dad-to-be to make him look strong in front of his Mum. The peripeteia (reversal) comes when he finally gets his parents together - but not in the way he planned - the charade goes wrong and his father is forced to demonstrate genuine strength. When he finally does get home to 1985 we are surprised to find that his family and quality of life have gone way upmarket compared to the life he left. His impact in 1955 has influenced his father's character and he is therefore born, 17 years later, to a stronger father and a whole different life.

Take a look at your own stories or story events. Do your sequences/chapters/scenes or entire stories live up to Aristotle? I've found that the Peripeteia is particularly significant. I analyse stories that bug me - they have conflict, great characters, key questions - lots of boxes ticked, but something not right... and often the problem is predictability. If a story is great, the chances are it is because it has a wonderful cleverness to it - and that will be the Peripeteia - a beautiful twistiness compared to expectation - shining through. 

I imagine that anyone who has remained influential for 2,300 years probably knew what he was talking about, so I'd pause and think about this one if I were you...!

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Kindle and Illustrations...

Here's a heads up for all of you who may have written a highly illustrated book in the past and been frustrated that Kindle is realistically only suitable for text-based books. 

My highly illustrated children's books sell very few in hard copy, and I'm very pleased to see my first one out there as an iBook. It needed adapting for the iPad/tablet/etc, specifically because you can only view one page at a time, so double-page spreads don't work, but but well worth the effort, and hopefully will make some sales! 

There are good instructions on iTunes on how to build the book - fairly easy, I gather, although if you want someone to do it for you, contact me and I'll put you in touch with The Grateful Ted, who did mine for me! Also a great advantage is that the illustrations are multi-lingual, and the little text there is can be translated to Spanish, Japanese, Vulcan - whatever - with relative ease, so suddenly your book can go global with no print costs, no distribution, no storage, no nothing. It's just out there. Forever. Selling...  

So if you made a 'Photographic History of Lingerie Through The Ages' do get in touch - I'll help you with that one... Or an illustrated children's book like mine, now's the time to dig it back out and pimp it up for the iPad! Take a look here:

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Subtext – The Most Critical Tool in the Story-Teller’s Box

What is subtext? Why is it important? Why is subtext fundamental to a story’s quality.

All writers are told that subtext is the ‘untold’ or ‘underlying’ story, and that stories must be delivered in subtext. Make no mistake - this is true. Without subtext, you literally have no story. However, what the great and the good fail to tell us is how in the world we are supposed to go about telling an ‘untold’ story? How do we bury our story, and still tell it, apparently without mentioning it?

So they give us examples. A character takes a girl by the hands, looks her in the eyes and says, ‘I love you.’ And the audience gasps, because they know that he’s about to leave her for another woman. This is all well and good, but still doesn’t help us understand how to deliver our stories ‘in subtext’.

What we need to know is what writers do to generate subtext.

Creating Subtext
Subtext results from what I call ‘knowledge gaps’. When you craft into your story a difference in the knowledge held by different participants, you introduce a knowledge gap – and simultaneously create intrigue and engagement. This is most easily expressed from the audience or reader perspective:

If the audience knows more or less than any character in the story,
                                  you have story delivery in subtext.

So there are two basic forms of subtext, based on whether the audience knows more or less than a character:
Revelation Subtext
Take a mystery story. We follow the detective through all the events, we see all the clues, and we try to predict whodunit. Then the detective arrests the blonde, and we think, ‘Wha-what? The blonde? But she’s innocent! She’s the victim!’ and our minds go racing back through all that has gone before to try and establish what the detective spotted that we didn’t. The audience knows less than the detective, and revelation subtext is built into the story.
 Privilege Subtext
As the detective bravely climbs the dark staircase towards the attic, his candle blows out and a chill runs through us all, because we know that there is an axe-wielding maniac waiting for him behind the door at the top. Knowledge gaps whereby the audience knows more than a character generate Privilege Subtext.

Within these two types there are at least ten mechanisms for introducing knowledge gaps. By introducing a mysterious character; by using a subplot to influence another plot; by raising questions in the mind of the audience (particularly ‘I know what the protagonist wants - how is he going to get it?’); by playing on audience pre-conceptions (just because he looks like a policeman doesn’t mean he’s not a criminal...); subterfuge (a character with a secret, an alter-ego, lies and deceit are all wonderful examples of subtext);

Other less common types of subtext exist, using implication and suggestion, metaphor and allegory, and a character’s subconscious aims, but we are best to leave these for another day.

The more the audience has to work to make up the story for themselves in the knowledge gaps, the finer the story is perceived to be, so make it your business to understand subtext. The quantity, depth and persistence of knowledge gaps in your story directly relate to how well your story engages an audience.

This is my specialist area and the subject of my PhD thesis. for full details and in-depth examples, take a look at section 4 of The Story Book.