Thursday, 19 April 2012

The Writer's First Tripwire...

One of the first traps that a writer often falls into in their early career looks like this.

Most writers get confidence in their early writing from some success with some short pieces. A writer might place an article or two, a short story published - 1500 words that get roundly admired. Then he does it again and feels a terrific - and well justified - sense of achievement as he receives the accolades of people who have genuinely enjoyed his work and he maybe even trousers his first payment for writing. Feels great, right?!

And it is at this point that the writer decides to set about the novel or screenplay he's been brooding over for the last few years. They open a new document, take a deep breath... and begin with their own version of 'Once upon a time...'

And this is the mistake. The trap is sprung. The writer is in trouble, and he doesn't even know it.

Writing 100,000 words or two hours of screenplay is a totally different discipline from writing a short piece. With 1000 words, we can begin at the beginning, write through to the the end, read it through, rewrite it, reorder things, screw it up and start again - whatever. Our writing method is simply to rewrite; read it again; then re-write again until it reads cleanly and no further changes are necessary. This is manageable, because even the most fundamental of changes can be managed and accommodated across the arc of the whole story.

So we set about our first full-length work in exactly the same way. Unfortunately, this rarely - very rarely - leads to success. To get to the end of a 100,000 word first draft, and then read it through and realise there are one or two wonderful changes you'd like to incorporate is a major new piece of work. To successfully manage all the ripple effects of even the smallest of changes is very, very tricky, and to do this two, three, four times is simply not sustainable in one lifetime. The vast majority of stories that are written this way end up dying in a drawer somewhere as the writer loses all sight of what the story was about, loses all vitality and connection with the heartbeat of the story and has no mental energy left to lift themselves for yet another re-write of such an enormous beast.

There is a saying that there are no writers, only re-writers, and there is no doubt that this is true. But there are limits, and a full length work needs to be approached in a different way if it is to have the best chance of getting itself finished. In my experience, the most effective method looks like this:

1. Begin with an idea. Question that idea to develop it. Ask what if? What if? What if...?

2. Focus on the ending. Once you are armed with your ending, you have your story. And from a working point of view, once you have your ending, you know where the goal is, so all the component story events (chapters/sequences/scenes...) can be geared to that ending. 

3. Once the idea has grown into a series of 20 to 30 component events leading to a clear ending, start pitching the story to people. Tell it out loud. It might not be something you want to do, but it is the single most valuable exercise in story development. Tell your story (that is what it is FOR!!) and you will learn SO much about it - the improvements will amaze you.

4. If there are frustrations in your story, think about meaningful conflict, character growth and subtext in every event and across the story as a whole. The source of your frustration will almost certainly be in one of these areas. Learn about these key story elements in order to speed up your writing process.

5. You are now ready to write the first draft. Even this process, because it is slower, will generate new ideas, so be prepared to go back up to the previous level and rework the story at the event level.

If you follow this process - without writing a single word in earnest until you know your entire story from front to back and have broken it down into manageable chunks - subsequent changes to the drafts will be minimal and editorial rather than fundamental, and your chances of becoming the proud creator of a fine, finished product will be greatly enhanced.

This is a brief, blog version of the method. An in-depth analysis of a proven story development method can be found in The Story Book; A develoment method discussed in step-by-step detail, from the seed of the idea to the distributed film, with Bob Gale on how he and Robert Zemekis developed their story: Back to the Future

Sunday, 1 April 2012

Two Types of Key Question

Leading on from my last post on The Subtext of Character Growth, I would like to refine - and hopefully clarify - the information by using this post to identify two types of key question. I am calling these an 'Event' key question and a 'Character Development' key question. Let's look at two simple children's stories and see what's going on.

Event Key Question
As discussed, the classic story structure we learn in our first year of story theory looks like this: an inciting incident raises a key question in the mind of the audience. The key question is pushed and pulled in the battle between the forces of protagonism and those of antagonism until the climax when we find out the answer to the key question. So, for example, the tortoise challenges the hare to a race (inciting incident). The key question is raised: 'who will win the race?' At climax, we find out the answer to the key question (the tortoise won the race).

This is a key question raised through an event. A 'plot' level key question - and although this is very clear and simple and is a fine mechanism, found in many great stories, it is evident that the very finest and most highly rated stories often do not have a clear and evident Event Key Question. So what do the finest stories have instead?

Character Growth Key Question
In the more highly rated stories, we in the audience are asking ourselves: 'What will happen next?' and we are gripped, but there is no clear and identifiable inciting incident raising a key question that carries us forwards. The Ugly Duckling is an example of such a story. A duck is born. It is different from the other ducklings, and suffers bullying, ridicule and social exclusion. No obvious key question is raised. So why are we intrigued?

Because we are powerfully locked on to the question of fulfilment for our protagonist. We are aware that our protagonist has a yearning - an ambition - with which we empathise. In life, we naturally crave a sense of belonging; we desire successful relationships and we feel secure if we fit in with communities and groups. So we want the duckling to be fulfilled as we desire to be fulfilled ourselves. We recognise the character suffering in these terms, and we are gripped by our own feelings about these issues in our own life, so we want to see what will happen to the protagonist's fortunes. The duck becomes a beautiful swan, achieves a sense of belonging in a group of other glorious swans, and the bad guy animals who ridiculed and excluded the ugly duckling look foolish and rather ugly themselves. The Ugly Duckling becomes fulfilled through an unexpected reversal in fortunes, and we are heartened and satisfied by the story and by the 'life' lessons we have understood. So the key question is there, but it is: "Will the protagonist find fulfilment?"

This is kinda important, because every single story of all time has either an 'event' key question, or a character growth key question, or both. Always and forever. Although a character growth key question tends to characterise the very finest stories, I would suggest that the easiest high power stories to write are probably those that have both. The Hare and The Tortoise is based around a very clear key question (Who will win the race?) but also has a second strand of character growth. We (and The Hare) learn a life lesson along the lines of 'more haste less speed'.

So as a writer, I would suggest that when you find a story idea that has potential, you need to look for how the story idea is going to describe a character arc of growth up the ladder of human values, and how that character arc is going to be achieved in the context of the real world challenges presented by the plot level 'event' that look like they will take the protagonist downwards in life.

Or to give an example from a story that has both, let's look at - guess what - Back to the Future. Marty McFly is sent back to 1955 in a time machine ('plot' event) raising the key question: 'Will he ever get back to 1985?'. Answer at climax - yes, he will); but the real story lives and grips and engages us on the question of George McFly's character growth. When George grows from weak and unassertive to take out Biff with one punch, he grows into a strong and confident man, and it is this life growth that defines the whole story.
 Will George find fulfilment? He certainly does, and there is the Character Development Key Question.