Saturday, 30 April 2011

Conflict and the Word Count...

There are many advantages to writing a book over other forms. Whilst screenwriters are generally squeezed into fairly narrow structural boundaries by their media, novelists have no limits. You can go anywhere, meet anyone and do anything you like!
However, novelists have one main problem over and above the more visual media. Generally speaking, their work is much longer. To fill a 100,000 word novel requires something like 4 times the material of a 100 minute film. There is also the double-edged sword that writing a book can be a lot more experimental. Constraints can be a very good thing in forcing a writer to be imaginative in coming up with creative ways of getting around limitations.

Novelists often come to me with a novel of between 10,000 and 50,000 words and they want to know how to turn this into something much longer WITHOUT getting out the dreaded padding.

The answer is to take the existing characters and find new forms of conflict to twine into their story. Let`s use Back to the Future for reference. It is fundamentally about a kid who is accidentally sent back in time. His key conflict is with the laws of physics and time travel. He has to find appropriate power in 1955 to match the nuclear reaction that propelled him there from the future in the first place. There are four types of conflict. Let`s see how each of these types can be used to add dimensions to the main plotline:

1)      Relationship Conflict. There is almost no story on earth that doesn`t include relationship conflicts. In Back to the Future, Marty is in conflict with his future mother, Lorraine (who falls in love with him); with his future father (who will not do what Marty requires of him so he can exist in the future); and with the bully, Biff, who wants Lorraine all to himself and bullies the weak and unassertive George. In your story, there is always space for another character providing a new set of conflicts for your protagonist.

2)      Internal Conflict. These are conflicts a character has with himself and his own fears and insecurities. Marty`s father, George, is in conflict with himself; racked with self-doubt and uncertainty. The outcome of the main plotline is directly linked to George`s ability to resolve his internal conflict.

3)      Institutional Conflict. These are conflicts against the rule-base of an organization; so the introduction of a policeman, doctor, teacher, bookmaker or anyone whose institutional rules will go against the desires and aims of the protagonist will always add a dimension. In the main story progression of Back to the Future, the school rules, as represented by the fearsome Mr Strickland in both 1955 and 1985, provide a surprising level of impact.

4)      External Conflict. You will note that all the above forms of conflict are – to a greater or lesser extent – open to being influenced by the character. External conflicts are story events over which the character has little or no control, so acts of God, machine malfunction, the random actions of incidental characters, illness, plane cancellations and so on. There are many minor interjections of this nature in Back to the Future, such as the fact that Marty got accidentally sent back in time in the first place.

  The key to successfully adding dimension to a story with additional conflict is to ensure that the new conflicts are directly tied in to the events that define your story and have an impact on the protagonist`s journey or character growth.

For lots more on conflict and antagonism, and the essential ingredient to make conflict effective (Triangulation) see The Story Book, or contact me directly and I will send you a freeeeee chapter on the topic.



Thursday, 14 April 2011

The Top Ten Tips for Stories that Grip!

In my work I have been fortunate to have conversations with famous people who have made their money from stories, including:
  • Bob Gale (scriptwriter of Back to the Future);
  • Lee Child (16 million Jack Reacher Novels sold);
  • John Sullivan (TV comedy writer of Only Fools and Horses; Just Good friends; Citizen Smith…);
  • Mark Williams (Actor in The Harry Potter films; Shakespeare in Love; 101 Dalmations...);
  • Willy Russell (Theatre supremo and writer of Educating Rita; Blood Brothers; Shirley Valentine…)
to name but a few. So, from the insights from these fine gentlemen, from my own experiences getting published and writing The Story Book, my work as a story consultant, from working on films and from undertaking my PhD in Story Theory, here are my top ten tips for writers.

1) If you want to be a writer, read a thousand books.

2) Write every day. Make it a priority, build it into your schedule and discipline yourself to it. Yes, being a writer is glamorous to talk about and a romantic place for dreamers, but the ones who make it work very hard, are professional and productive. Ask yourself: could you write 500 words a day? One side of A4? Yes? Good. If you do that, you'll have 90,000 words in 30 weeks, leaving 22 weeks - that's five months! - for editing and polishing, and you'll have a finished book in a year (and that's with Sunday's off!). Start today. One side of A4. Go.

3) Don't try to learn 'how to write'. No course or method or rule book 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 about STORY - where story power comes from, how they work, why they exist, how they resonate, what factors are present in all great stories - then use that understanding to take responsibility and write your story YOUR way.

4) Yes, understand story structure, 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 and optimizing your story.

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 higher a story is rated by the audience. Fact.

6) Stories are about character behaviours. Don't think about 'plot' and 'character' as separate things. What a character does when he takes action will define his true character, and what a character does when he takes action will also provide the action. Character behaviours meld plot and character into a single entity (story). Get this right, and your story-telling will be tight, cohesive and greater than the sum of its parts.

7) 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 is actually your real story, and this is what resonates with your readers and elevates your story.

8) True character comes only from putting your players 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. For a mountaineer to climb a mountain to save a stranded friend... risking his own life to do so whilst his children are begging him not to go and his wife says she’ll leave if he does... that is a story. Sit your characters on the horns of a dilemma wrapped in a choice of evils and sandwiched between rocks and hard places and your readers will be gripped...

9) 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... because they are so scared of the Judgment Day that comes the moment they admit it’s finished. There's no easy way. You have to grasp the nettle and get on with it or give up now. 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 else you won't get anywhere. As soon as your material is good enough, you WILL be recognised... and you WILL get a deal! And I promise you - once you’ve had 10 rejections, the 11th doesn’t hurt so bad!

Very best of luck with your work. Oh, before I go, I forgot number 10! Just one more tip we could all benefit from...

11) Get off the internet and go do some writing!