Monday, January 16, 2006
part two: story making essentials
Conviction is essential but it isn’t a part of the story’s sequential structure or plot. Then what is that structure? What does it consist of?
Minimal plot structure is very simple. It’s based around the idea introduced back in chapter one: something unexpected has to happen. Let’s call that something unexpected an event. No event = no story. Plot is the what happens of a story. It’s the event structure, the sequence of the action. The novelist E.M. Forster explained plot in this way in his book Aspects of the Novel. He compared these two sentences:
The king died and then the queen died.
The king died and then the queen died of grief.
Forster thought the second of these sentences constituted a plot whereas the first did not. The second sentence shows itself to be what part of a plot because it joins events in a chain of cause and effect, whereas the first sentence joins events which might only be randomly related to each other. The ‘died of grief’ in the second sentence answers a question (‘Why or how was it the queen died?’) and so involves the reader in a pattern of making sense of things which have happened.
In a plot, cause and effect – as reflected in the question ‘why?’ and its answer – unite action and behaviour. The way characters behave – what they do – creates the action of the story. Why do things happen as they do in a plot? Events happen because characters have made them happen. Surely things can also just happen to characters, as they can in real life? True. You can have your whole cast wiped out by an earthquake or a tidal wave, but if nobody could see that disaster coming – if there was no slight hint of such a possibility – then it won’t function as part of a plot. Events, to be credible, need to be foreshadowed in a plot. The plot has to allow those events to have a cause in the action of the story.
The word plot has two related meanings in English. A plot is the what happens of a story, and it’s also a secret plan to make something happen. The idea of a secret plan is very relevant to the idea of plot in fiction. As we’ve seen with conviction, there is a plan under the surface in a story, a plan which may or may not be secret. Think back to Macbeth. There’s nowhere in Shakespeare’s play that a character steps out of the action to address the audience directly and tell them ‘this play teaches us that blind ambition leads to self-destruction’. There are wiser and subtler warnings given by various characters. Macbeth – like all of Shakespeare’s great tragic characters – at times has great insights into his own situation. But the play’s underlying moral principle – blind ambition leads to self-destruction – is something we have to work out for ourselves. In the case of Macbeth, the protagonist of the story, it’s our privilege as an audience to understand what this very intelligent man is unable to accept about himself, about his choices in life. We learn from a distance what he misses by being stuck in his body with its particular destiny. It’s the action of the play that teaches the audience. This teaching by example is both very powerful and very subtle; it’s inexplicit.
What we observe with conviction is that a story works and is structured by means it need not disclose. But there’s more that a story has to do. We haven’t yet mentioned the ‘who’ of a story. A story has people in it. Or animals who are really people. In a story something happens to someone. And as there is almost always more than one character, we can go further. Something happens to people in a story. Their situation changes and they change with it. Usually the characters bring about at least some of those changes. So the plot is something that happens because of what the characters do to each other, or because of the ways in which they affect each other. The vital element here is conflict. In general the plot progresses because characters disagree or differ, or even because they both want the same thing, but only one of them can have it.
Something happens to people in a story? It would be better to say that something happens between people in a story. People act and are acted on and as a result of those actions things change.
A shorthand for plot would then be the who-does-what-to-whom of a story. That’s how characters are in the plot. It’s the behaviour of the characters in the story that delivers the action that constitutes the plot. It’s through the who-does-what-to-whom structure of a story that characters shape the plot in the reciprocal process by which plot shapes the characters. This is what is intended by the formula for fiction sometimes described as plot = character. The story happens through the action of characters. Through the action of characters the plot progresses.
Now you could say a plot, any plot, has a minimum structure, as follows: Beginning then Middle then End. Aristotle made an observation along these lines a long time ago. It’s hard to argue against this description but it isn’t necessarily very useful. A piece of string has a beginning, a middle and end, but it’s arguable as to where one should draw the lines between these. A piece of string has a beginning, a middle and an end, and so what? We need a more useful description of basic plot structure from which to work. Here it is. Here’s the most basic structure a story can have and still function as a story:
- A story grabs you, it gets you in.
- A story surprises you, it has some kind of turn or complication.
- A story has resolution.
That grab has the function of a newspaper headline or billboard: it attracts your attention and makes you want to read on. The complication has the effect of turning you around. It’s a surprising development in the action of the story; it’s a surprise because it’s not what you would have expected. The resolution needn’t fix everyone’s problems, but it puts an end to the complication (or series of complications) that drove the story. That’s why Calm * Action * Calm doesn’t quite do justice the fundamental structure of plot. Think of Macbeth, a story that begins and ends in the heat of battle. Resolving the complications essential to a particular plot does not mean solving all the world’s problems. The world goes on having problems after the story’s finished and this is what makes other stories possible. Nor do all the loose ends have to be tied up, there might be enough elements of a plot left unresolved in order for there to be a sequel. Macbeth 2!?
The simplest story structure is, as listed above, Grab then Turn then Resolution. For the sake of brevity, from now on when we need to refer to this simplest structure, we’ll call it G*T*R.
Asking questions/taking action:
- How is the structure of a fictional story different from that of a news story? Which kind of story has more resolution? From a fiction maker’s point of view, a story in the journalistic sense usually seems to be missing something. That doesn’t mean the news isn’t useful for the writer of fiction. Human interest stories in the newspapers and on television are often fictions just waiting to happen. Change the names and the places and fill in the missing parts of the plot structure and you will have a story. Find some news stories with human interest and try to work out what parts of the basic plot structure are missing. Then try to fill in the gaps so that the story works and so that it proves a conviction.
- By yourself and/or in your story circle generate grabs, turns and resolutions for possible stories. Try to talk a story through by using the following procedure:
1. everyone thinks of a grab to get a story started
2. everyone tells her or his grab to the group, which then chooses the one to go ahead with
3. everyone thinks of a next part of the story, of a further complication (or complications) leading to a climax
4. everyone tells her or his further complication/s to the group which again chooses the best plot for the story
5. in the same way resolutions are suggested and one is chosen
- Please note that (if you prefer or want a variation) you can do all of these things silently, by writing in the circle, and by passing your ideas around on sheets of paper. Note also that this procedure will generate many more ideas than are needed for one story. That doesn’t mean that all of those ‘extra’ ideas are useless or need to be discarded. Nothing needs to be wasted from this process. A group might, in one sitting, produce as many group stories as there are members, on the other hand, maybe the individuals who came up with particular ideas will want to keep them and create individual stories, adopting whatever helpful suggestions are made. It’s best to be flexible in deciding what to do with story ideas. Don’t worry about who owns what. Learn by sharing.<.li>
- Once the group comes up with what everyone agrees to be a finished story, test it out, by asking a simple question: what does the story prove? Chances are, if you can’t answer that question, then there’s something wrong with the story. Chances are, if there’s something you feel isn’t working in the story, conviction is the most likely element missing or unclear. If the story does work though and you just can’t quite name the conviction then probably your ideas are subtle and wonderful and you have no further need for this manual.
the simplest stories – several models
Where can we find minimal examples of this minimal story structure? The shortest texts should be the first place to look: rhymes and songs, jokes and fables, fairytales. Take a stanza of a popular song. It’s from Ira Gershwin’s lyrics to the ‘Saga of Jenny’, from the 1940’s musical, Lady in the Dark.
Jenny made her mind up when she was three
She herself was going to trim the Christmas tree.
Christmas Eve she lit the candles, tossed the tapers away:
Little Jenny was an orphan on Christmas Day.
This stanza contains a perfectly formed but minimal plot. What grabs us? The idea that a three year old girl is going to do something as difficult as trimming the Christmas tree. Of course this seems innocent enough, but in the next line we see that trimming the Christmas tree herself means independent and unsupervised action. That creates a surprisingly dangerous situation. And in the last line we see the results of that danger. The house burns down and the people (her family) who were not watching Jenny closely enough, die in the fire. This gives us – not a happy ending but – a neat resolution to the story. And note that the story has everything we could ask: a clear setting (domestic Yuletide scene with Christmas tree), a strong character, presumed conflict (having been told not to play with candles?) and a powerful conviction, expressed ironically as the moral of the chorus throughout the song: ‘Don’t make up your mind.’ You see Jenny’s problem throughout her life was that she always made up her mind. Decisiveness was always her undoing. If only Jenny hadn’t made up her mind then she wouldn’t have got into trouble.
Other stanzas of the song also constitute perfect little stories in their own right. Here are two of them. The next:
Jenny made her mind up at twenty two
To get herself a husband was the thing to do.
She got herself all dolled up in her satins and furs
And she got herself a husband but he wasn’t hers.
And the last:
Jenny made her mind up at seventy five
She would live to be the oldest woman alive.
But gin and rum and destiny play funny tricks
And poor Jenny kicked the bucket at seventy six.
Each of these stories draws our attention to the dangers of being decisive. In each case a surprise – an event which could not have been predicted – draws attention to the fact that although we may choose to do or to not do certain things in life, we cannot predict or be in any way certain of the outcomes of our actions.
Taken together, these simple stories form a chain that creates a longer story: the saga of Jenny, the story of a woman’s life. The point is that the invariable minimum Grab * Turn * Resolution structure can be repeated any number of times in a story, but if it doesn’t happen once then you don’t have a story. ‘The Saga of Jenny’ provides a good example of what we could call additive plot structure. You could describe the plot of the larger story, as G*T*R* G*T*R* G*T*R* G*T*R. It’s a story made of stories, each the same size and each with the same amount of complication.
Jokes also provide a good example of minimal story structure. And because jokes depend for their humour on timing, they need to be tightly plotted to work. They surprise the reader and deliver their punch line (resolution) at just the right moment to release the tension they have built up through suspense. Suspense is what keeps the reader in the story, suspense is what will be released when the action (and often the conflict) in the story is resolved. The philosopher Kant likened the process of the joke to the blowing up and bursting of a bubble. The joke is the basis of comedy. You could say that just as a story may consist of many smaller stories, or of a repeated Grab * Turn * Resolution plot structure, so a comedy may consist of many jokes. Those jokes will naturally be organized in a larger story structure that must make sense in its own right. Here’s a first simple joke for kids.
‘Who’s the king of the jungle?’ the proud lion asked the frightened deer.
‘Y…You are, your majesty,’ the deer stammered. The lion said, ‘That’s the right answer,’ and went off satisfied that the deer knew her place and how powerful he was.
The lion next met the towering giraffe. He looked up at her and, in a threatening tone, he asked, ‘Who’s the king of the jungle?’
There was a moment’s hesitation and then, from high above, ‘You are,’ said the giraffe meekly, a little nervous of the lion’s jaws.
‘That’s the right answer,’ the lion said once more. Full of confidence now the lion approached the elephant and – because the elephant was so much bigger than him – he asked as rudely as he could, ‘Who’s the king of the jungle?’
The elephant snorted and coughed, considered trumpeting but decided against it. All the while the lion was getting angrier and angrier, waiting for an answer. And then the elephant simply picked up the beast with his trunk and threw him halfway across the jungle.
From a great distance away, all the animals heard the lion’s tiny voice, ‘No need to get angry just because you don’t know the right answer.’
In – let’s call it ‘the lion king’ joke – what grabs us is the lion’s pride. The turnaround comes with the elephant’s response. The resolution is in the punch line, the lion’s ironic comeback to the elephant: ‘No need to get angry just because you don’t know the right answer.’ Conviction? As it say in the Bible: ‘pride cometh before a fall’. If, through arrogance, you push too far, eventually your luck will run out. In the lion king joke the suspense builds as the potential for conflict becomes more evenly matched. There’s more tension because the lion has to be braver each time he approaches a bigger animal. Notice that, until the elephant picks the lion up and throws him across the jungle, there isn’t any real conflict in the story; there’s plenty of potential for conflict though. That potential for conflict is what keeps the listener in the story. With each conflict brewing we want to know what will happen. Will there be a fight? Will one animal back down? The art of telling a good joke is in keeping a listener in. The listener is kept in with detail, much of which will end up being irrelevant. It won’t be clear though, what’s relevant and what’s not, until the final release, until the punch line. Suspense is building because the listener’s need to know what happened, next and next and in the end, is likewise always growing.
Anyone who wishes to make strong plots should study the joke because the joke’s dependence on timing tests the effectiveness of resolutions. The test and result are immediate in the case of a joke told aloud. If you don’t get a laugh then your joke didn’t work. Here’s an anonymous joke of which many variations and elaborations are available. Let’s call it ‘Baked Beans’. It’s told in mock fairytale mode.
Once upon a time there lived a man who truly loved baked beans. Now we all know what effect the eating of baked beans has on the digestive system. This man’s reaction to baked beans was particularly strong and particularly embarrassing.
One day the man met a girl and fell in love. As the couple got to know each other it became increasingly likely that they would get married. The man knew that if he married the girl and continued eating baked beans as usual then his marriage would be a disaster because the girl would not be able to put up with the noise or the smell.
When it became clear that the couple would be married, the man searched his soul and decided to make the supreme sacrifice. He decided to… give up baked beans.
So the two got married and all went well for the first months of their marriage. Then one day – and it happened to be the man’s birthday – on the way home from work, his car broke down. They lived in the country so there was no way for the man to get home but by walking. The man started on his way and called his wife as soon as he came to a phone box. He let her know what had happened and told her he’d be late. She told him to hurry home so that she could give him his present and so that they would be able to enjoy his birthday together.
On his way home after the phone call the man passed a small café he had never paid much attention to as a driver. He was almost past the café when a familiar and enticing smell overwhelmed him. It was the smell of baked beans. You can imagine how hungry the man was after all this walking and being anxious from his difficulties with the car.
He decided that if he were to break his vow just this one time and in this unusual situation, and eat baked beans just once, he would feel better. He still had far enough to walk home to be able to walk off any adverse ‘side effects’. What harm could be done?
Once in the café with a bowl of baked beans before him he found he was ravenous. He ordered a second bowl, and a third. He knew his wife probably had a wonderful birthday dinner ready for him at home, but he just couldn’t help himself.
He felt heavy on his way home. It was a noisy trip but on a country road there was no one to hear. Arriving home, the man felt fairly safe that the explosive phase of his digestion was over.
His wife met him excitedly at the door and told him that she had a birthday surprise for him. To keep it a surprise though, she had to blindfold him and lead him into the room where she had the present ready. So the wife led the husband blindfolded into the dining room. She led him to the head of the table and sat him down.
She was about to remove the blindfold when the phone rang. She made him promise not to look and went off into another room at the other end of the house in order to answer the phone.
With his wife out of the room the man felt relieved. He realised by now he still had some rumblings down below which he’d be more comfortable if he could give vent to. Now, with his wife out of the room, he shifted his weight, lifted a leg and let forth. The room was full of rotten eggs, but no matter. His wife was still on the phone. The man felt for a serviette on the table before him and desperately fanned around himself. But still the urge was on him. And the next explosion was more impressive than the one before. Anyone outside of the window would have thought a truck motor was being started. He fanned again and again the urge came. This time the windows shook, the dishes on the table rattled and though the man couldn’t see this, the flowers in the vase on the table wilted and died.
But still his wife was on the phone and still the man kept fanning like fury. He felt more comfortable now. Perhaps he was safe at last. Time passed without further seismic activity. The man felt that the air had settled when he heard his wife’s footsteps in the hallway at last. The man was a picture of innocence when his wife walked back into the room.
She apologized for having taken so long. She asked if he had peeked and sheepishly he said he hadn’t. Then she removed his blindfold and screamed ‘Surprise!’ Around the table were seated a dozen of the man’s oldest and closest friends. They had been invited for a surprise party. And everyone there had indeed got a surprise!
Note how tension builds up through the story. The man takes time to walk home so we have to wait to find out what will happen when he gets there, what kind of present his wife will give him. Once home, the man is blindfolded. He can fart safely we think till his wife gets back. But what will happen then? Will he be able to control himself?
A joke works if it works because it releases tension in a way we wouldn’t have thought of. Releasing tension is, interestingly, exactly what our protagonist in the Baked Beans joke wants to do. His situation makes literal Kant’s ideas about the joke as bursting a bubble. In this case the man is the bubble. We laugh at the man letting it out, but we laugh harder at him when we see that there were others in the audience with us all along. The man’s bubble (of secrecy, or privacy) is burst when we share the witnessing of his physical bubble bursting. There’s a trick to the joke that alters the structure of the story we seem to be in when we’re hearing it.
Let’s think through the Grab * Turn * Resolution structure of this story. At the beginning of the story the man is happily unmarried and what grabs the reader’s attention about his situation is this curious problem he has. He loves baked beans but baked beans make him fart. You might say it’s not so unusual to fart and it’s not so unusual to love baked beans. You might say it’s not so unusual for people to be afflicted with the things they love (smokers regularly die of lung cancer) but in this story it’s this circumstance that makes us pay attention to this character. He loves baked beans and farts because of them: this is all that we know about this character, who is, in other respects completely normal. Both qualities are presented to us as in an extreme form. His passion is strong, as are its effects. But because his passion is strong we know that his sacrifice is great.
The turn in the story mirrors the grab: to get the thing he loves (the girl) he must give up the thing he loves (baked beans). This decision is his defining moment and the man rises to the challenge. He reforms himself and chooses the girl ahead of the baked beans. So he’s decided on new priorities in life. There’s something mock heroic in this crisis in the story and in the choice the protagonist makes. The passion and the sacrifice may be great within the confines of this story but they’re not great against those of the famous heroes of famous stories. It’s through this set-up that the story is established as comic before we get to any punch line.
In fact once we know that a joke’s being told we have to expect a punch line. Perhaps we can manage to forget that one is coming and that way we’ll be really surprised when it does come. But the teller of a joke can’t rely on that kind of memory lapse. The joke teller’s best trick is to distract the reader so that the reader – though expecting to be surprised – will not be able to predict the manner in which she will be surprised. In the Baked Beans joke what distracts us from the embarrassing possibility that our man might have company is simply the certainty with which he assumes he’s alone. We forget that he’s not in a position to know because we assume that the blindfold is related to something in a big box with a ribbon around it.
In the Baked Beans joke one complication leads to another, giving the reader a chain of surprises, of which the last needs to be the best because it needs to release the tension built up through the joke’s telling.
Following the example of the joke, it might be sensible to think of basic plot structure as simply tension and release, with (as E.M. Forster argued) some kind of causal connection between them. In other words, there’s a reason for the tension in story. It’s related to the action, it’s brought about by and it affects characters. And likewise there’s a reason for tension being released in the story. Action also brings about the story’s resolution.
It’s easy to find analogies in life for the structure of the story. That’s probably because the story – in its simplest form – is one of the most basic things people can do, with words, and even without them. A story is like life because in a story one thing leads to another, though hopefully not in a way one could predict. A story can be structured like a dream, it surprises us because it reveals a world different from the one we know; that’s probably because dreaming is what first gave humans the idea of telling stories. A story is structured like the act of sex; that might be because the grab and the complications and the resolution involved in sex are what keep the human race going. Living in a male dominated world, it shouldn’t surprise us that the structure of conventional stories typically more closely resembles men’s than women’s experience of sex.
The joke shows us how resolution – in this case the punch line leading to laughter – depends (like sex) on a release of tension. The building up of tension throughout the course of a story is known as suspense or rising action. We’ll return to these terms shortly.
Asking questions/taking action:
- Tell jokes around the story circle. Once they’re told try to make maps to explain/reveal their structure. Try to recycle the structure you’ve noted – changing names and places – in order to create a new story. Note that the new story need not necessarily be a joke.
- Make lists of grabs, lists of complications and lists of resolutions. Can you match items from these last three lists in order to create a workable plot (or plots)? Will any of these potential plots match the lists of possible convictions you made at the end of Chapter 5
foreshadowing and digression
Although we’ve so far been looking at very simple stories, already you’ll notice that apart from G*T*R structure there are a number of other story elements at play. Perhaps the most difficult thing about getting started as a story maker/writer is that in a story so many different things are happening at the same time. If one element is not working then chances are all the rest will fail as well. For this reason it’s a good idea now to briefly look at the elements fundamental to every kind of story. Some of these have already been discussed and the rest – foreshadowed here – will be treated over the next few chapters. Let’s take another joke as an example in order to consider the various elements of a story and how they relate to each other.
Two men are drinking in a bar high up in a skyscraper in the middle of the city. They’ve both been there for some time. Each has lost track of how many drinks he’s had. They haven’t spoken to each other yet but now one man leans across to the other and says ‘Great place… just great!’
The other man looks skeptical, and responds, slurring slightly, ‘Yeah, well why would that be?’
The first man motions his new friend over towards the window and says, ‘Just look at that…Just look…’
‘What?’ The two men are looking down on the city street thirty floors below them. There’s nothing unusual happening there. They both feel a little chilled by the air conditioning in the bar.
‘Oh all right, I’ll show you.’ And with this, the first man opens the huge glass window in front of them, allowing the warm night air to rush into the bar. The bartender throws a suspicious glance in the direction of the pair, but they don’t notice him and, saying nothing, the bartender goes back to his chores, washing glasses and putting them back in their cabinet. The first man now steps up onto the window ledge. His drinking mate looks worried but the man on the ledge appears supremely calm. The drop below him is terrifying but he doesn’t even seem to be trying to balance. A moment later he has stepped from the ledge into the air beyond. He doesn’t fall, he hovers mid-air. The night air is still and calm around both men. It’s pleasantly warm. Not a word said.
After a minute of hovering like this – a minute that seems like eternity – the first man steps back inside where his companion now appears spellbound, dumbfounded. All his cynicism has dissolved. It’s as if he’s had a religious experience. Next the first man – without saying anything – motions the second towards the open window. It’s his turn now. The second man feels that his life is at the crossroads. He’d been visiting bars, he now realised, because of the trouble he couldn’t face at home, at work. His life was a mess. That’s all in the past now. Now he knows his life has changed forever. There’s no going back. Still, without a word exchanged, the second man moves towards the window, steps up onto the sill. The bartender casts a doubtful, half worried, half resigned look in the two men’s direction, before going back to the beer he was pouring. The bartender isn’t looking when the second man, having taken a deep breath, bravely and decisively steps forward, plunging thirty floors to his death.
The bartender looks up now, gives a tired sigh and addresses his remaining regular customer, ‘You know you’re really not such a nice guy when you’ve had a few drinks, Superman.’
Let’s think through the story elements in the Superman joke:
- Setting – in this case, a bar high up in a building in the city
- Action/Plot – drunkenness, hovering in mid-air, a falling death
Complication – the character hovering in the air is not what we expect, the character falling to his death is not what we expect, the character turning out to be Superman is not what we expect
- Cause and effect/Motivation – the second man steps out the window to his death because he believes he has just witnessed a miracle and he trusts the man who’s shown it to him; he believes that a miracle which applied to someone else could also apply to him. Superman’s motivation turns out – unexpectedly – to have been malice
- Credibility – drunkenness makes stupid bravery credible
- Character/Conflict – not apparent till the end of the story, perhaps never apparent to the second man; perhaps we shouldn’t call it conflict at all, yet it fulfils the function of conflict in the story: the second man is maliciously tricked into suicide (or is it?)
- Suspense – we want to know what’s out the window, we want to know why the first man can hover in mid-air, whether the second man will be tempted out, whether he too can hover in mid-air, why the first man could and the second man couldn’t
- Climax – the second man falls to his death
- Resolution – in the falling action of the story (sorry, that was irresistible) we find out why the man died
- Point of view – the story is narrated in the third person; the point of view to begin with is close to that of the second man, by the end of the story it’s at a little distance from that of the barman
- Empathy, identification – we tend to empathise with the second man. Up until the time of his death we experience most of the story as he does. We know what he knows and doesn’t and we have similar doubts and fears, we make similar (and unfounded) leaps of faith
- Conviction – be skeptical of miracles and you might have a longer life, or don’t expect others to perform the miracles your life requires
The joke works because all of these elements are working together at the same time, not because the listener or reader is aware of the fact that they’re working. In fact, the opposite is true: when the reader starts thinking about the elements of the joke and whether or not they’re working, that usually means something’s wrong: it usually means the joke didn’t get a laugh and we want to work out why it wasn’t funny.
The joke relies for its surprise on the trick of getting the reader to take her eye off the ball. In fact this is a key technique of many types of story. How to distract the reader? The best way is through the balanced use of foreshadowing and digression. Let’s quickly define these terms. When the story foreshadows it lets us know in advance that something important – something of particular importance – is yet to happen. In the most general sense we already know that there’s something – or that there are things – of importance yet to happen in the story: that’s the rest of the plot. Foreshadowing points the reader or listener in a particular direction, the right one. The problem is that, at the time one’s attention is being directed by what could be foreshadowing, one cannot yet know whether it’s the right direction or not. If it’s not the right direction we’re being pointed in, then the pointing is a digression. In the best stories foreshadowing and digression are impossible to pick apart until after the event. Only with the hindsight of the story’s resolution can we know which was which. The reader’s uncertainty about the way in which events will unfold builds tension and makes the events truly surprising when they come.
Think of our last story, the Superman joke. There’s foreshadowing when we see that the first man can hover in mid-air without falling because as we later learn, he is Superman. The bartender is ‘half worried, half resigned’ because, as we later learn, he’s seen Superman with a few drinks in him before. The second man’s fantasies about miracles and his life at the crossroads, with everything about to change: that’s digression. There isn’t going to be a miracle, the man is going to die. In an ironic sense, there’s foreshadowing here too; the man’s life is about to ‘change’ in a very final sense.
Let’s look at an example of foreshadowing from the writer’s point of view, a clichéd example. You want a character to have a heart attack towards the end of your story. In the first act you show the audience that the character has a weak heart. How could you do that? He could clutch his heart and stumble around weakly. That might be too dramatic (even melodramatic). He might have to go back home because he forgot to take his heart pills with him. Or you could just have a conversation where another character asks him ‘What are those pills you’re taking?’ And he replies ‘They’re for my heart.’ This clear kind of foreshadowing is known as a ‘plant’. The author has planted a seed that must grow into something later in the plot. Or not. The problem with the plant is that its effectiveness depends on the audience not being terribly aware of it. A plant works when the audience can forget that it’s there as the story goes on, but be reminded in the end, for instance when the character in question has his heart attack, just before he would have saved the beautiful girl. It’s hard to forget a plant that is well known because you’ve met it before in another story. And it’s hard to forget a plant given great emphasis. Regular heavy handed reference to the heart pills will lead the reader to expect a heart attack. On the other hand fiction writers should never lose sight of the experience of their readers. Sometimes the best way to trick the reader who’s expecting to be tricked is to give them what they expected in the first place. Lots of foreshadowing with the heart pills makes a heart attack so obvious that the reader assumes she’s being tricked, distracted. When the heart attack actually comes then it actually is a surprise. One shouldn’t expect to get away with that kind of trick too often. Nor does every story need much digression. If you think back through the stories we’ve studied so far, you’ll see that Macbeth has plenty of foreshadowing (the witches’ prophecies) but virtually no digression.
In the case of the Baked Beans joke we are pointed – as with jokes in general – explicitly in the direction of a surprise. That’s foreshadowing but it’s not very specific or clear what kind of event might lie ahead. There’s nothing we could call a plant in this case. The mention of a ‘present’ was a kind of digression because we couldn’t know at the time that the ‘present’ might be something like a collection of friends throwing a surprise party and secretly, silently, waiting for the protagonist’s blindfold to be removed. This in itself would not be very surprising but the blindfold has made these people invisible from the protagonist’s point of view and so when we find out that time has elapsed in their presence and when we remember what was happening in that elapsing time, all of the tension that was built up in waiting to find out what the surprise present could be, is released. The bubble bursts. The wait was worthwhile.
How to decide whether it was worthwhile? Suspense is related to how long we have to wait for a result and to how interested we are in getting the result. Timing is crucial. The longer the protagonist sits there farting and the louder he farts in front of his friends, the funnier it will be in the end when we find out that that’s what’s been happening. Up to a certain point. Credibility is the key here. We won’t believe it if he sits there farting for three days, we don’t believe it if his farts blow the back wall of the house down. The reason the wait was worthwhile and the bursting of the bubble gave the joke a satisfying resolution was that it was somewhat of a surprise, it wasn’t what we had been expecting. It was a surprise to us because we had been subtly misled by a digression.
The trick to the effective use of digression in a story is that it has to seem no less important and no less plausible than what will turn out later to have been foreshadowing. Only after the event, once we know the ‘result’ of the story, will it be clear that a particular instance in the plot was a digression and another particular instance foreshadowing. When you analyse the story once you know it complete, it becomes clear that a particular digression or series of digressions was necessary to the story, because of the way in which it led the reader up the garden path. A particular instance of digression may be referred to as a ‘red herring’. A red herring takes the reader off the scent of the right trail. If the character who’s been clutching his heart, stumbling round the stage looking for his heart pills all the time, does not in the end have a heart attack, then those pills and antics were red herrings. Crime fiction particularly depends on this technique. It’s vital for suspense that the wrong person be suspected of the crime.
Digression is vital to many stories because, carefully masked, it is the best way of developing a surprise for the reader. It is perhaps for this reason that Laurence Sterne called digressions the sunshine of reading.
Asking questions/taking action:
Think of digressions that could be foreshadowing and vice versa. Try to make a list of ‘plants’ that might or might not mislead the reader.
- How could you foreshadow the following story resolutions?
- A plane crashes in the desert. Only a small child survives.
- A wife shoots her husband in a crowded restaurant.
- The Earth is destroyed by a meteor from outer space.
- After many years away the hated daughter is accepted back into her family.
Think of digressions which could take the reader off the scent in the following plots.
- A hero breaks an evil spell by rescuing a princess from a wicked dragon.
- A son avenges the murder of his father.
- A jealous wife destroys her husband’s lover.
- A clever scientist saves the Earth from certain destruction.
So far we’ve discussed the story almost exclusively in terms of plot. Now it’s time to look at the story from the point of view of character. Remember the reversible formula: plot = character. Plot = character because without the people in the story there simply is no story. Every story has some conviction behind it and only characters can carry convictions, likewise only characters can be in conflict and it’s usually through conflict a story generates the action a plot can resolve.
If conflict drives the plot and creates the suspense that keeps the reader in the story, then it is characters who are responsible for the conflict. Conflict is fuelled by the desires of characters. Characters are wishing machines and it’s their wishes make the story go. When characters – especially major characters – stop wanting things (or stop wanting things to happen or not happen), this is usually a sign that the story is grinding to a halt.
To foreground the importance of desire as a motor of conflict, let’s look briefly at a very simple type of story, a kind of fairytale called the ‘three wishes story’. The particular story I’ll discuss here is usually called ‘The Woodcutter and his Wife’. I’ve chosen it because it’s short, simple and easy to imitate.
A woodcutter gets three wishes from an elf who is rewarding him for not cutting down his tree. The woodcutter gets home and tells his wife who, in her eagerness, accidentally wastes a wish by wanting a lot of sausages. The husband, angry at the waste, wishes the sausages up his wife’s nose. He stops himself just before he wishes his own tongue cut out for having been so stupid. The two of them try to tug the sausages out of the wife’s nose but with no luck. The magic is too strong and there is nothing for them to do but to lose the last wish in getting the sausages out of the wife’s nose.
That’s it: three wishes wished: G * T * R: conflict, suspense, climax, resolution. Conviction: Look before you leap. What grabs the reader is the magic coming into the story. An ordinary person is doing an everyday thing (his job) when suddenly something magical happens. He is offered wishes in return for an act of kindness on his part. The first complication is that the wish that should have or could have made life better or even perfect for the woodcutter and his wife is wasted and appears to have made only a trivial improvement in their lives. But in fact the result of that first wish and complication is worse than it immediately appears because it sets the previously harmonious couple into conflict with each other, and so leads to a second complication. The second complication is that the second wish, spent in anger, has a negative effect that only magic (in the form of the third wish) can undo. The resolution of the story is in the use of the third wish to restore the situation to that which existed at the beginning of the story. By squandering their wishes these two have ended the story exactly where they began: as a poor woodcutter and his wife eking out a meagre existence in the forest.
In the three wishes story in general, we can say that the first wish is usually in some way unexpected for the reader because unplanned for by the character making it, and leads to a surprising outcome – usually a setback. The second wish often seems much smarter – or is at least better thought through – but turns out to be misplaced in some way. Or sometimes the second wish just corrects the damage done by the first. In the case of the woodcutter’s story the second wish has made things worse, much worse than they were before. Either or both of the first and second wishes can be virtual accidents. Sometimes – as in the case of the woodcutter’s story – the third wish needs to be devoted to correcting accidents. The difference between the second and third wish is that after the third there are no more wishes and therefore – by default – there is a resolution and an end to the story. But what kind of wish will satisfy the reader by resolving the story?
There are two categories of possibility. Either something changes for the characters so that the scene is different at the end of the story; or the scene is the same at the end as at the beginning of the story, in which case the characters have been changed by their experiences, i.e. they now know something that they did not know at the beginning of the story. This is the most common resolution. Usually, the third wish sets things to rights and returns the wisher to a situation not unlike the conditions prevailing before the first wish – the difference being that the wisher is wiser and/or happier for a better understanding of themselves and their situation and potential. So it’s older and wiser rather than happily ever after. It’s important to note the way in which characters change through such a simple story. The fact that experience changes the woodcutter and his wife is highlighted by the way in which their wishes change throughout the course of the story.
The three wishes plot pattern fits into a broader pattern making use of sequences of three related events. This is common in fairytales but also in many other genres (or kinds of story): a hero has three tasks or three goals to attain, or makes three attempts to do something. Consider the case of the fisherman who met the jinnee in The Arabian Nights.
There once was a poor fisherman who put out his nets four times each day just to feed his family. One day he had set his nets and went to haul them in when he discovered that they were too heavy to gather. He heaved and heaved and in the end found that in his nets he had caught the body of a dead donkey. After retrieving and spreading the nets out on dry land he cast them again and this time he hauled in a large clay jug filled with sand. He threw away the jug and cast his nets again. This time when he drew them in they were filled with pieces of broken pots and broken glass. Before setting his nets again he prayed to Allah that this next time his nets might bring in for his family their daily bread.
And when the fisherman tried to haul in his nets for the fourth time he discovered that something was tangled in them. So he stripped off and dived to the bottom of the sea and when he hauled in the nets this time he took from them a copper jar shaped like a cucumber and sealed with a lead cap. The cap was stamped with the seal of King Solomon, son of David. Seeing this, the fisherman rejoiced for he knew that he would sell the jar for a small fortune in the bazaar. But the fisherman was curious about what was inside the jar. He shook it and realised it was quite heavy. He simply had to open the jar so he worked with his knife at the lead plug until it came loose and he could finally remove it. Once the stopper was off the jar the fisherman was surprised that there seemed to be nothing in it. He left the jar on the ground and returned to the business of catching his family’s dinner.
Soon however smoke came pouring from the mouth of the jar and soared in a spiral up into the sky. The ground shook and the clouds trembled in a terrifying manner. The smoke condensed into the form of a huge jinnee, whose head reached up to the clouds while his feet touched the ground. The fisherman stared at the jinnee, who cried out, ‘There is no God but Allah and Solomon is his Prophet. Apostle of God, do not slay me. I will never disobey your laws.’ The fisherman was very surprised but remembered the seal on the stopper of the jar. He said to the jinnee, ‘Solomon has been dead for eighteen hundred years and now the end of the world is approaching.’ Then the jinnee said ‘Fisherman, be of good cheer’. But the fisherman didn’t like the sound of those words and asked the jinnee what he meant by them. And the jinnee explained that the fisherman had to die this very hour.
The fisherman asked why he had to die and the jinnee replied that the fisherman had only to choose the manner of his death and he would kill him on the spot. The fisherman naturally wanted to know why it was the jinnee was so ungrateful to someone who had rescued him from eighteen hundred years in a stoppered jar. So the jinnee told the fisherman his story.
He had been one of the heretical jinn who would not embrace the true faith. So King Solomon had him sealed in a jar and cast the jar into the sea. For the first hundred years of his captivity the jinnee swore that whoever released him would be rewarded with great riches. But no one released him. So for the second century he swore that the hidden treasures of the earth would be given to his rescuer. But no one set him free. So the jinnee swore that whoever got him out of his accursed jar would be granted three wishes. Another four hundred years passed, the jinnee lost all patience and now swore that whoever released him from the jar he would immediately kill. The only choice he would offer his saviour would be the manner of his death. After that the jinnee lost track of time but kept his resolve to kill whoever should release him from the jar.
And now the jinnee again told the fisherman that he should make his choice of death. But the fisherman naturally pleaded for his life. ‘Spare my life and Allah will spare yours,’ he argued. ‘Make your choice now for you will die within this hour’, the jinnee replied. ‘You should pardon me for having freed you,’ argued the fisherman. ‘It is because you have freed me that you must die,’ replied the jinnee.
Seeing that his situation was apparently hopeless the fisherman realised that his only hope of surviving this encounter was through the use of the brain God had given him. So he asked the jinnee whether if he asked him a simple question he would promise to answer it honestly. The jinnee agreed and the fisherman asked him how it was that he could fit in a jar that was not big enough to hold his finger or his toe. The jinnee accepted the taunt and responded, ‘So you don’t believe that all of me could fit into that little jar?’ ‘No, I don’t believe it,’ responded the fisherman. ‘And I won’t believe it until I actually see it with my own eyes’.
At this taunt the jinnee shook in a most terrifying manner, shaking the clouds and the earth with him, and then turned back into smoke, and then poured back into the jar. Immediately the fisherman stopped the mouth of the jar with the lead seal.
The jinnee argued with the fisherman from the inside of the jar that he should release him once more, and that this time he would grant the fisherman whatever he wished. But the fisherman would not be tricked and the jinnee is to this day still in his stoppered jar on the floor of the sea just where the fishermen threw him back.
For a while it seems like this tale is the opposite of – or a grisly parody of – the three wishes story. The fisherman is offered only a choice of the manner of his death, that’s not the kind of wish most people would think to wish for. Notice how this story depends for its motivation on a story inside it. This is a feature of tales from The Arabian Nights. The jinnee’s strange motivation – his wish to kill whoever rescues him – can only be understood by means of the jinnee’s own story. We could summarise the plot of the fisherman’s story as follows:
- Grab: Hungry fisherman nets rare old treasure
- Turn: Jar in net turns out to contain jinnee
- Turn: Jinnee once released determines (unjustly) to kill rescuer
- Resolution: Fisherman outwits jinnee and gets him safely back into the jar
- Conviction: The humble man with his wits about him…
Consider for a moment the desires of the protagonist and the antagonist of this story. The jinnee’s desire is something the reader could not have anticipated. It’s for revenge on anyone at all. This (completely unreasonable and unpredictable) desire is also in the end the jinnee’s undoing. The fisherman’s desire changes though, or it comes full circle. He starts and ends the story just wanting to feed his family. Building to the climax though his only desire is to remain alive. It’s for that purpose he uses his wits. If he hadn’t been clever enough he would certainly have died, if he’d given in to the jinnee he would have died. If he’d given up hope – if he’d given up his strong desire to survive – then he would have died. Desire (in this case of a very fundamental kind, the desire to live) is what kept the fisherman – and the story – alive, alive through to a satisfying resolution. Again, remember satisfying resolution doesn’t have to mean a happy ending or the triumph of good over evil; a satisfying ending has to resolve the conflict in the story so as to prove the story’s conviction.
Asking questions/taking action:
- Make lists of possible wishes for a three wishes story. Choose one or more of these wishes and from them try to work out a plot. How does your story change the situation of the characters? How does your story change the characters themselves? What would the conviction (in a fairytale, the moral) of the story be?
- Around the story circle: Silently, on paper, everyone creates:
1. a circumstance for the granting of three wishes (characters plus story setting), then the paper is passed to the next person in the circle, who writes
2. the first wish, then the paper is passed to the next person in the circle, who writes
3. the consequence of the first wish, then the paper is passed to the next person in the circle, who writes
4. the second wish, then the paper is passed to the next person in the circle, who writes
5. the consequence of the second wish, then the paper is passed to the next person in the circle, who writes
6. the third wish, then the paper is passed to the next person in the circle, who writes
7. the resolution and/or conviction of the story
- Imagine two characters want the same thing. Try to create a simple (G*T*R) plot structure that will resolve their conflict. (Note, the resolution needn’t be happy or peaceful.) What conviction could your story prove?
- Make a list of things you want. You can start with a shopping list of just commodities, but try to add specific abstract items as well (e.g. the love or respect of a certain person).
- Make some lists of possible wants which aren’t yours (things people you know might want, things characters in a story might want). Are there possible sources of conflict which could be generated by these conflicting desires?
- Take the list from the exercise immediately above and add some magic to grant yourself three wishes. From these wishes, create a modern day fairytale, for adults or for children (or in two versions, one for each).
motivation and credibility
Stories are motivated. Stories are motivated principally by the circumstances and the desires of characters. What characters do they do for a reason. What happens in a story happens for a reason. In a story, one thing leads to another, in a logical way. All this might seem obvious but it points to an important difference between what happens in a story and what happens in life. Life is full of unexpected events and characters having no connection with the events and characters we already know. One could say that religion is necessary for most humans because most humans simply can’t accept that events in their lives could be unconnected. Most people demand to see themselves in a story, even if it’s not for them to understand the plot or see what the conviction or resolution of the story might be. Stories work by connecting the unexpected with the expected. Remember Forster’s definition of plot: the king died and then the queen died of grief. Most fundamentally, the events in a story are causally related to each other so that their sequence in the form of a plot leads the reader through complications or crises to a climax to a resolution. Stories are motivated and this means that a satisfying ending is one which resolves the conflict in the story so as to prove the story’s conviction.
Complications or crises? Each complication in the plot should provide a key character with a crisis, or point of decision. Crises are character shaping moments in a plot. Convincing characters – like the stories they’re in – are convincing because they are motivated. Their decisions make them who they are, but also show who they are.
You might be thinking that this emphasis on the importance of motivation contradicts the idea that the surprise element is essential to stories. It’s not the case that we have to understand every event and every decision of every character in a story just at the time those events and decisions are happening. Perfect understanding every step of the way would kill off one of the most important sources of suspense in a story: that is, not yet knowing what will happen.
In fact, we don’t just want to know what happens to characters, there’s an important sense in which we also want to know who those characters really are. True character in this sense is revealed by the ways in which characters get through (or don’t get through) crises. When characters act in inexplicable ways we want to know why. The reader can tolerate a mystery as to what motivates a character. That kind of mystery can generate suspense, but only for so long. The reader can likewise tolerate only so many inexplicable events. The story has a duty to explain how at least most or sufficient of its events are connected. In order to work a story must be credible or convincing. The reader must be able to believe and understand enough of what’s happening in order to read on.
By now you’re probably thinking that myths and legends, fables and fairytales, will not fit this formula because each of these genres depends on events which are incredible because they’re magical. More likely, you’re wanting to throw the idea of credibility out the window because there are too many types of stories which don’t seem to fit the mould. But there’s a good reason not to discard credibility as a criterion for the success of a story. The explanation of the seeming anomaly is simple: credibility is genre sensitive. In other words, if you’re in a myth it’s OK to meet a dragon, if you’re in a fairytale there’s no problem having an enchanted castle where you sleep for a hundred years or a thousand or turn princes into frogs with a kiss. If you’re in a sci-fi story you can travel much faster than light, and so on. A reader makes allowances for the fact that she’s in fiction, or, to use a more technical term she suspends disbelief.
Genre by genre different suspensions of disbelief are demanded of readers. In fact, they help to define genre. A fairytale in which nothing magical happens isn’t really a fairytale. No amount of willingness to suspend disbelief will however compensate for bad plotting. A bad plot is most obviously revealed through transparent manipulation. When that happens it’s obvious to the reader that the writer has lost control of the story and has desperately tried to find a way to save it. The two most common credibility problems, revealing this desperation on the part of the author, are the convenient coincidence and the deus ex machina. The convenient coincidence is where, for no reason at all, something happens to smooth out the complications in the plot. Let’s take an example: a character knows too much or has become too powerful for the story to go on as it should: that character has a convenient accident and is thus taken out of the action. The problem with the convenient coincidence is that because there’s no foreshadowing there’s no motivation and because there’s no motivation the event has no credibility. The deus ex machina (or God out of the Machine, a device in Greek tragedy) has a similar function although it is in a way the opposite of the convenient coincidence. The deus ex machina is used when the story has got out of control and only outside intervention (that of God or a god) can save the situation. Usually this happens in the last scene. In the Western genre in old Hollywood films the deus ex machina might be in the form of the U.S. cavalry’s arrival out of nowhere, just when the heroes were about to bite the dust.
As readers, we need characters with whom we can identify in a story. We need conflict and/or danger to build our identification with those characters. And we need the characters with whom we identify and the characters with whom they conflict to make the story by responding to the crises which shape them as characters. We also need the story to be convincing, to be believable, and to be internally consistent: to make sense of itself in its own terms.
Asking questions/taking action:
- Make a list of events that would only be credible in a fairytale.
- Make a list of events that would not be credible in a fairytale.
- Make a list of genres and against them list the ways in which the reader in that genre needs to suspend disbelief in order to find the story credible.
- List surprising though credible crises and complications for characters in a story.
- List different possible reactions characters might have to each crisis.
- Try to think of more surprising (though still credible) reactions to (or decisions in those) crises.
- Try to think of crises or reactions that would have the effect of changing the genre of the story. Could the change you’ve brought about this way be accepted by the reader?
Look for a story (or stories) among these lists. Try to play with the possibility of beginning in one genre and ending in another.
Around the story circle: Silently, on paper, everyone creates:
- 1. a circumstance for a story (characters plus story setting)
then the paper is passed to the next person in the circle, who writes
- 2. what happens first: a grab or first complication
then the paper is passed to the next person in the circle, who writes
- 3. the consequence/s of that first event
then the paper is passed to the next person in the circle, who writes
- 4. further complication/s/crises, tries to build more suspense
then the paper is passed to the next person in the circle, who writes
- 5. more plot leading to a climax, then the paper is passed to the next person in the circle, who writes
- 6. a resolution, then the paper is passed to the next person in the circle, who writes
- 7. the conviction of the story
Carrying this process out on paper should create as many stories as there are people in the group. Only rarely will the group agree that the stories are of equal value. But if any of the stories is good then the credit should go to everyone in the group because the successful story was the result of a group effort. The paper process can be short circuited to create a single group story, line at a time, talking around the circle. Try it with a fairytale first. The first speaker starts with ‘once upon a time’, then everyone adds a line a time, until it is possible for someone in the circle to finish the tale with a ‘happily ever after.’
rising action and suspense
Action in a story can be classified in two types: circular and forward. Circular action describes the habits and routines, the actions that identify or define a particular character: the nervous twitch, the untrimmed moustache, the cough first thing in the morning, the perennial love of baked beans. Forward action by contrast changes characters and setting, it transforms the story, moves it along. A story like Macbeth is virtually all forward action. We get to see how characters are by seeing them in action, by seeing them making the story happen and at the same time being changed by it. Circular action is part of the character and setting development of a story, forward action is what causes the plot. Or rather without forward action the plot goes nowhere. It’s through the forward motion of the plot that tension or suspense is created and the action of the story rises.
Think back to the Baked Beans joke. In that story a series of turns or complications creates the crises through which the protagonist must negotiate a way by making decisions. Circular action: he loves baked beans but they make him fart. That’s OK but he wants to get married. Forward action: he gives up baked beans because he gets married but one day his car breaks down near the baked beans shop. He thinks it’s OK to eat the baked beans because he has a long way to walk home and he thinks he’ll have stopped farting by the time he gets there. But he’s wrong, he’s still farting. Then luckily for him, he thinks, his wife leaves him alone so that he can fart in peace. But he’s wrong again, he’s not alone; and now at the end of the joke his position seems impossible. There’s nothing he can do or say that could conceal his guilty secret again now that it’s out. It’s his acute embarrassment we laugh at. Our pleasure is in the fact that he now has no escape.
Once the setting is established the story is all forward action. Notice the role played by the string of ‘buts’ in this equation. It’s the series of reversals for the man in the story that put him in an ever more difficult situation (further and further up a tree, or down in a hole, depending on which metaphor you prefer). One thing leads to another. When something seems to be resolved it turns out surprisingly to be a new complication. The structure could be described as G*T*T*T*T*T*T*R. Or you could describe it as follows: Grab * Turn * Resolution (=) Grab * Turn * Resolution (=) Grab * Turn * Resolution. Each apparent Resolution becomes the Grab for the next turn in the story. In this way the story rolls forward and builds up at the same time. At the very end it turns out that, just when we all thought we could breathe a sigh of relief, the stakes are the highest and the embarrassment is therefore the most acute. We don’t sigh, we laugh.
Suspense or tension rises as the complications get a protagonist into an ever more difficult situation. The story in other words builds and gets more exciting as things get worse for the character with whom we identify. This is known as rising action. This blowing up of the bubble is, as we’ve noted, typical of the joke. It’s also more generally characteristic of stories.
Perhaps better than a joke is the effect of not knowing till the story’s told whether what one’s being told is a joke or not. That kind of surprise has become more common and important in stories over the course of the twentieth century. It’s the surprise the reader experiences when she discovers that she wasn’t in the genre (the kind) of story she had thought she was in. Flann O’Brien’s very short story ‘The Taxi Driver’ is one of my favourites. I think it helps to imagine a strong Irish accent for the telling and some dark Irish pub ambience to go with the tale. The storyteller begins by claiming to have had a remarkable life, and that his memoirs would make very good reading.
Years ago a friend from Dublin suggested we spend an evening together and I agreed to this because I believed him to be a philosopher, in other words a gentleman of worthy intelligence. But this hunch of mine was proved wrong, because as soon as we met he made me go to a pub with him and drink a lot of whiskey.
After we’d been drinking a while in this pub my friend told me he wouldn’t have another drink in the place because – and he subtly nudged me to let me know – there was a sinister man drinking a dark kind of beer called stout at the other end of the bar. I glanced quickly in the direction indicated and saw a tall man dressed in black who looked like a corpse. His face was grey. And his features were grim.
We left this pub quickly and drove many miles to another village. Naturally we needed a drink when we got there. But before we could take a sip we were shocked to see that the same dark character was in this pub too, and drinking the same glass of stout, or so it seemed.
Quickly we finished our drinks and made our way to another village, where the whiskeys we had ordered had only just arrived when we saw the black figure again. We were shocked naturally, we drank as fast as we could drink and made for a far distant and deserted hamlet. We needed to get as far as possible from this terrible spectre. But remember too that we were in shock, so naturally we needed a drink.
Of course, as you’ll have guessed, the dark figure was there as well. My friend was now swallowing his whiskey down in large gulps. I told him that we had no choice but to face this dark force. He looked at me horrified but could not speak. Trembling with fear I approached the dark creature. I told him that I didn’t like the look of him. He said the same back to me. I asked him why he followed us and he told me that he couldn’t go home until we first went home. ‘Why not?’ I stammered. His answer was, ‘Because I am the taxi-driver.’
In this joke/story the tension rises through a series of complications which are in fact the same complication repeated but with building intensity. What’s so surprising in this story and so suspenseful turns out to be so logical and so funny. How can this dark apparition keep turning up wherever these two protagonists go? But we know that he will be there. We become accustomed to this spooky destiny that faces them. There’s no escape from what must be a supernatural power. And then the bubble bursts. Of course the taxi driver is there. Why wouldn’t he go into a pub when he’s driven passengers there? Where else should he go?
The conflation of the joke and the ghost story is easy to accept because both genres have a very similar structure. The basic model ghost story also depends on the blowing up of a bubble. The bubble bursts with a blood curdling scream or with a sinking feeling: either of which indicates that the doom of the protagonist is sealed. Or it ends with danger averted, a sigh of relief and a happily ever after. Each of these kinds of sudden falling action deflate the bubble rapidly; they dissipate suspense, they release tension.
Suspense and tension are what keep the reader in the story. We want to know what will happen next. And we want something particular to happen. Or not happen. For instance, we know the bad guys are plotting some evil deed. We’re worried about what will happen to the hero (or protagonist). We know that the suspense in the story is working on us as readers or as viewers when we physically feel the tension, when we flinch at the protagonist’s perils, or better still, when we cannot bear to look.
Asking questions/taking action:
Make a list of circumstances that will naturally provide suspense. Here are a few serious examples to get you started. Fill in the gaps and create new scenarios, both serious and comic:
- Your protagonist wakes up in a strange place, wonders where she is and has to find out how she got there.
- Your protagonist has amnesia. He can’t remember who he is and as the story is told in the first person, we as readers won’t know who he is till he finds out himself.
- Your protagonist is being stalked by a paid killer. But why?
- A bomb will go off in a building in the city at 2 p.m. tomorrow afternoon. Your protagonist/s has/have the task of finding the building and disarming the bomb.
Two rival groups are racing to be the first to… Only the winners will get the…
Your protagonist has a terminal disease but before she dies she must fulfill the promise she made to her dying…
Try to develop one or more of these scenarios into a complete story.
conflict and resolution
Suspense is the motor of the story. It’s working when action is forward and rising. But where does suspense come from? How can it be generated? Suspense arises because there’s something at stake in a story. We, the readers, care about the outcome, care about the characters (or at least some of them, for instance the good guys), and so as the stakes in the story rise for the characters, the tension rises for the reader. The stakes in the story are closely related to conviction: the conviction behind the story is what makes the action and the characters worth caring about. But conviction is behind the story, there’s usually something more immediate fuelling the suspense. That something is conflict.
Conflict comes from something more basic still – from the fact that characters want something. It’s the needs and/or desires of characters that fuel the conflict that creates the suspense that drives the action forward towards a resolution. One thing leads to another. This sounds complicated but it can actually be very simple. Get one of these aspects of the story right (desire or conflict or suspense) and the others will usually fall into place.
Let’s take an example of a simple story driven by simple desires and conflicts. We’ll build it up from the writer’s point of view and use this example in order to practise basic plotting. Let’s start with the headline that gets our attention: BOY AND GIRL FROM FEUDING FAMILIES FALL IN LOVE. That’s a grab. We’ve got your attention. And let’s get this clear. A grab isn’t just boy sees beautiful girl and heart throbs. It isn’t just boy and girl unproblematically fall in love and live happily ever after. Nor is ‘happily ever after’ any kind of resolution to a story. That cliché merely describes how a situation might be after a story is already over. It describes how life ought to ideally be: happily resolved. But a retirement plan is not a story. There’s not much ‘happily ever after’ in the newspaper. That’s because it doesn’t sell, it doesn’t grab anyone’s imagination. Keep in mind that – in both the fictional and the newspaper variety – the story is generally a place most people would rather not be. News, in the sense of new information, is what makes a story worth listening to. So here’s the news: BOY AND GIRL FROM FEUDING FAMILIES FALL IN LOVE.
Needing to know is a powerful potential source of suspense in a story. What do we want to know about these love birds from the feuding families? We want to know what’s standing between them and their happily ever after, we want to know how strong their love is, how big the barriers to it are, and whether their love will triumph in the end.
Here’s the scenario. These kids love each other. But their families hate each other. We want a happy ending. But how can there be a happy result for them? They face a crisis, which means, very simply, that they need to make some kind of decision. Either they obey their parents and give up on their love for each other, in which case that’s the end of our story. (Although it could be the beginning of another story.) Or they decide that their parents – much as they love them, and so feel inwardly torn – do not know what’s best. Their love is stronger than their parents’ stupidity or hate or bossiness. Their love is worth fighting for. If that’s the case then they’ll need some kind of plan.
So what are their options? They could run off together, get away from their silly families and live their own lives. Sensible outcome, but not much of a story. What if they try to do that but then something goes wrong? What if they decide to meet somewhere? That’s it, let’s start on the forward action.
The lovers don’t want to arouse suspicion, so they go separately. Here’s their plan. They’ll meet in a place no one goes very much. By an old tree they both know. It’s in a cemetery. (That gives us a little extra spooky suspense.) The girl arrives first but is frightened off by – here’s a surprising complication – a lion. The lion doesn’t attack her because it’s already having its dinner. In fact its paws are covered with blood. The girl’s frightened though, she runs away and she drops her cloak as she goes. Here’s another serious complication. The lover’s plan has gone wrong. What can they do? There’s a problem that needs to be resolved. Note that the lovers are now not in a position to decide what to do together. They have to act independently. The girl’s hiding in a cave until she thinks it’s safe to come out and try to make her rendezvous with boyfriend again. But when she gets back to the tree, what does she find?
She discovers that the boy, having found her cloak bloodied by the lion’s paws, has drawn the worst and wrong conclusion, namely that she’s been killed by the lion. At this point there could be several possible resolutions. For a happy ending, the boy could weep and moan until the girl shows up, at which moment the reunited lovers breathe a sigh of relief and live happily ever after. For a tragedy, the boy kills himself and then the girl, discovering the boy dead, takes his sword, and kills herself in order to join him in the afterlife.
Other possibilities? These would be the compromise endings. The boy survives his suicide attempt as a cripple and the girl nurses him back to full health or as an invalid for the rest of his days. Or girl survives suicide attempt and becomes nun. Or, girl is rescued by handsome stranger. Now note that, for various reasons, the compromise endings are not satisfying as resolutions. Naturally there are lots of other possibilities. Boy kills lion and barbeques it for girl. He’s not worried because he knows that she’s always late for appointments. This would be a parodic ending. In other words, it would taking the reader out of the genre she thought she was in to begin with. In this case the genre shift would reduce tragedy to farce.
There are other possible tragic endings as well. The boy might foolishly have attacked the lion – thinking that would make him appear brave to the girl – but lost and been killed in that way. Or the girl could have had a fatal tussle with the beast. The boy could have arrived while the girl was fighting the lion and then both of them got killed. None of these variations works. The right ending – the proper tragic ending – is the one in which the boy mistakenly believes that his girlfriend is dead, and so, before she can tell him otherwise, he kills himself, leaving her to find him dead, take his sword and so on.
Why is this the right ending? Why don’t the other endings work? Now, it’s easy to say that the original plot is the right one because the story is famous and it’s the one we’re used to it. And there is a danger of a chicken and egg discussion here: it works because we know it’s the right one, it’s the right one because it works. But there is something much more satisfying about the ‘right’ ending, isn’t there? It resolves much more than the other endings do.
In order to say what was resolved, we have to see where the conflict in the story was. The fundamental conflict in the story was between generations. It was between parents and children. The parents won’t allow the relationship between the lovers and so the lovers have to take things into their own hands. That’s more or less the story’s grab. The turn comes when fate takes things out of the lovers’ hands. The resolution is the manner in which the lovers deal with the hand fate has dealt them. From the moment they part they find themselves facing crises alone. The girl (Thisbe) has to decide what to do when she sees the lion. Once she’s found a safe hiding place she has to decide how long to stay there, decide when it’s safe to come out, and hopefully take into account the fact that the boyfriend (Pyramus) may be looking for her and be, at the very least, worried. Pyramus has to decide by himself what to do when he can’t find Thisbe. Should he keep looking? Should he go home? Seek advice? And when he finds her bloodstained cloak, what should he do then?
It’s essential to the ‘right’ story – to achieve the proper tragic consequences – that the characters make some ‘wrong’ decisions. Pyramus has to put two and two together and come up with six in order for us to get to a tragedy instead of a narrow escape. It’s the tragic ending that resolves the conflict set up at the beginning of the story. It doesn’t matter if we’ve forgotten what that conflict was as the story reaches its climax (the highest point in the action). One thing has already led to another. It doesn’t matter if we haven’t met the antagonist characters with whom the lovers (our protagonists) were in conflict. The conflict once established drives the action which takes us through complication and climax to the story’s tragic resolution.
Notice how the lovers are partly responsible for what happens to them but that certain unpredictable things (e.g. the lion) are out of their control. And notice that timing is everything. Timing (in this case bad timing) is what allows the suspense necessary to the story. If boy and girl had met up before the girl met the lion then there wouldn’t have been any complication and therefore there wouldn’t have been any story.
Perhaps you’ve recognized this story is that of ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’, an ancient Greek myth of which Shakespeare was rather fond. Shakespeare adapted it in Romeo and Juliet, and he made it his play within the play in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The conviction? You could be very dour and mean and say that the conviction is ‘Obey your parents.’ But I don’t think that’s really what the story teaches. The conviction of the story – as in Romeo and Juliet – is that true love is unstoppable. It may not conquer all, but it won’t be stopped by feuding parents.
In the context of this book however, the lesson for the fiction writer is as follows: Resolution is of the conflict in the story, it’s the means by which the story proves its conviction.
Asking questions/taking action:
- Make a list of major conflicts which have occurred throughout your life.
What are the major conflicts in the world today? What are their causes?
- Make a list of causes of conflict in your home/ in your workplace/ around you in the everyday world… Try to match each of these causes of conflict with a conviction, then build a simple G*T*R plot to prove the conviction and resolve the conflict in the story. Remember that your story should begin by establishing the conflict to be resolved, or else with that conflict already established.
Around the story circle, share:
- What are the main conflicts in your life?
- Are there conflicts from which you are running away?
- What kinds of conflict must be faced in life, which can (or should) be avoided?
- What means are justified for the resolution of conflict?
- Which means of resolution cannot be justified?
identification and empathy
The tale of the clever Fisherman and that huffy Jinnee provides an excellent example of what dramatists call the unity of opposites. The best way to picture the unity of opposites is to see the characters in a story sitting on either end of a see-saw. When one is up the other is down, when the one that was down goes up then the one that was up is down. The one we identify with is the protagonist and the one we don’t identify with is the antagonist. Note that the protagonist needn’t be all good, nor need the antagonist be all bad. This picture is over-simplified but the see-saw image gives you the general way of seeing the connection between protagonist and antagonist and suspense and conflict. Think about the fisherman and the jinnee. One of these characters is always powerful at the other’s expense. If you want to test the good-bad aspect of identification, then think about Macbeth. Macbeth is not the good guy but we do identify with him. Our fisherman is a more clear-cut case. It worries us when he’s in danger. We care about what happens to him, we empathize.
In a conventional story it’s helpful if we can identify with at least one character. That probably means that we experience the story – or a large part of it – from that character’s (or those characters’) point of view, or from a point of view close to theirs. We know how s/he feels. It’s as if we feel the same things ourselves. We have empathy for the character. Identification with a protagonist makes suspense and tension easy to convey. Suspense, remember, is what keeps the reader in the story. Suspense depends on identification because it depends on the reader caring about what happens to a particular character. Which particular character? We’re worried about what will happen to the protagonist. We feel tense when the character with whom we identify is in danger. We relax for a while when the danger is passed. Consider the doomed lovers in the story of Pyramus and Thisbe. We could get more suspense out of the story if the boy were still alive when the girl finds him. Will he live? Will he die? There’s suspense while we’re finding out. That suspense is only as strong as our identification with the character whose future is in doubt or in the balance.
Suspense is most easily achieved through conflict between characters. And that conflict most powerfully develops suspense when it’s clear that the audience has duties to identify with a certain character or certain characters, as against certain others. Conflict doesn’t generate suspense very successfully if we don’t care who wins or loses. Suspense works for an audience when, through the process of identification, they themselves have a stake in the action.
Back to ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’. There are actually two parallel conflicts in this story. There’s the conflict between generations, as previously mentioned. But there’s also a more obvious conflict, a conflict almost too obvious to notice. That’s the conflict between the lion and the lovers (or you could read it symbolically as the conflict between wild nature and the plans of humans). It’s the threat of the lion that builds the suspense which keeps us in the story till the characters start doing away with themselves. If we didn’t identify with the girl and the boy then we wouldn’t care about their fate.
Notice how in the case of both conflicts it’s the absence of any possible ‘middle way’ that creates the crises in the story and so moves the action along. Quite obviously there’s no compromising with a lion, unless you’re a lion tamer, which neither of these lovesick kids was. But then the lion didn’t kill any body (well, any human body) in the story. Pyramus jumped to the wrong conclusion about what the lion had had for dinner. In other words Pyramus’ fatal mistake was in assuming that his girlfriend hadn’t managed to compromise with a lion, when in fact the point he’d missed was that she hadn’t actually struggled with a lion. She’d merely run away from one. So there’s a case of presumed conflict leading to dire consequences. What of the generational conflict? Surely there could be reconciliation between the lovers and their parents? Couldn’t there? In life, hopefully! Because in life sensible, sane, well balanced people are always trying to avoid being in a story by trying to avoid conflict. But in ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ the possibility of reconciliation with the parents is so far from being considered that none of the parents need even appear in the play.
We feel empathy for the lovers. Everyone’s scared of a lion and these two are innocents, so we’d like to see them protected from the cruel world and their own stupid mistakes. After all, it’s only for love they’re taking the desperate measures they’re taking. And the power of love is central to the premise they’re proving. That’s why our empathy for them leads us to wish them free of their folly, but not, importantly, free of their impetuosity. Let’s be clear about this. We don’t want Pyramus to kill himself; we don’t want him to do it because he’s making a big mistake. But Thisbe’s suicide is satisfying for the reader because it resolves the story because it allows the lovers to be reunited, albeit in death.
Plot = character, character = plot. In this simple story it’s easy to see how the characters develop through the crises they negotiate. They leave the parental nest to become adults and quickly meet their fate. It’s easy to see how they make the story as they go. It’s their decisions, made at moments of crisis – to run away, to kill themselves – that in fact constitute the plot. It’s also easy to see in the case of this story that plot and character point to the conviction in a cumulative way. It’s not that a particular character needs to agree with or state the conviction of the story. Rather it’s growing identification with that character which leads us to the realisation of the story’s truth.
Let’s quickly recap the empathy/identification arrangements in the stories we’ve studied so far. In ‘The Woodcutter and his Wife’ we identify with the couple in conflict. If only they weren’t at each other’s throats they might have got something out of those wishes. We could be perverse and identify with the elf watching on, but that would be another story. In ‘The Fisherman and the Jinnee’ the unity of opposites comes into play. Our empathy for one character at any time depends on where he stands in relation to the other. Note that in the inside story, the jinnee deserves our empathy: he’s stuck in that nasty jar for eternity. The jinnee loses our empathy as his intentions turn nasty. As with ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’, presumed conflict – the presence of a assumed antagonist (that sinister character) – is also what drives the suspense in ‘The Taxi Driver’. Discovery that the presumption was wrong is what bursts the bubble and lets out the laughter in the end. In Macbeth we identify with a murderous villain and somehow hope that he’ll avoid the well deserved and very satisfying fate he meets in the end.
What these varied examples should show is that there are useful techniques but no formulas for getting readers to identify with characters. The character who deserves my empathy is one who could be me. Given different circumstances, a different roll of fate’s dice, I could have stood in that character’s shoes. Put the right obstacles in front of a protagonist and in overcoming them – or in failing to overcome them – that character becomes human, becomes flesh and blood. His or her strength or weakness is mine. Put that character in competition with a powerful antagonist and there will be suspense in the story as long as the result remains in doubt. When the story is resolved – heroically, tragically, however – the protagonist’s truth will have been shown and the story will have proved its conviction.
Asking questions/taking action:
- Make a list of qualities to describe a character with whom you can easily identify.
- Make a list of qualities with which you could never identify. (If you find this difficult then the easiest way about it is to make a list of things you yourself could never do. Imagine a character doing all those things and you should have someone with whom it is hard for you to identify.)
- Make a list of circumstances which would tend to rouse empathy for a character.
- Make a list of circumstances which would make it difficult to empathise with a character.
Now, from the lists above, try out four plot/character possibilities:
- Easy to identify with character in easy to identify with circumstances
- Hard to identify with character in easy to identify with circumstances
- Easy to identify with character in difficult to identify with circumstances
- Hard to identify with character in difficult to identify with circumstances
Around the story circle, try to role play characters in these positions. From this play you might begin to create complications towards a plot, either for a story to write together, or to write individually.
Which of these will be easiest to write as a story? Which of these will make the best story? Compare notes around the story circle. Which of these do you want to write? Go ahead and write it.
credibility, convincing characters
To work for a reader, a story needs to be credible and the people in it therefore need to stay in character. That doesn’t mean that characters can’t change, that doesn’t mean that all action should be circular. On the contrary, what most interests the reader in a story is the journey of a dynamic character, the one who makes and is made by the story: Macbeth on his path to destruction, the fisherman saving himself from the jinnee. The reader will though have trouble seeing why the same character should be drunk in one scene but claiming to be a tea-totaller in the next. How can the same character love alcohol and hate it from one scene to the next? Of course this is possible, it’s possible because characters can be complicated. Some of the most interesting characters are the ones whose lives and opinions are the most contradictory. So the demand for consistency doesn’t mean that the reader can’t accept a complicated character or a changing character, it means that inconsistencies in character need to be motivated somehow by the story. The danger – particularly in a short story – is that your reader will fail to recognise a character who is inconsistent. The longer your story the more room you have to make characters complicated and to show them changing.
How real is the world in your story? Remember it’s a story, not real life, and so it only needs to be believable and consistent in the terms of its genre. How real are the characters who inhabit the story? One of the questions you should ask yourself about the characters you create, and likewise about other authors’ characters, is: how real or genuine are the choices they get to make in the story? Round or dynamic characters are the ones who get to face crises by making real choices. The more real their choices the more seriously we take the crises precipitating them. The plot develops as a result of the choices these characters make. And conversely these characters develop through participating in the action of the story. The story changes them and as they change they ‘write’ the story. Flat or static or stereotypical characters don’t change much and they don’t get to make real choices; they simply are the way they are. Flat characters often act as foils for round characters. Round or dynamic characters are both more credible and easier to identify with. They’re more alive. It’s not so difficult to get away with having minor or peripheral characters who are flat, but a story with flat central characters is apt to seem wooden.
A story with only a few characters has to make those characters major, central. If you have two characters then those characters both require some depth. Ideally they should in some way represent opposed forces so that waiting to see the result of their conflict can generate the suspense propelling the story through its crises towards a climax and resolution. The more characters you have the more likely it is that some of those characters will be functional. The danger is that those minor characters can become the mechanical servants of the plot. It’s much better for your story if your minor characters can have minor stories in which their crises and choices really matter, and through which these characters become rounded, changed by their participation in the action.
Consider for a moment the relationship between the crises characters face and the conviction their story proves. Crises in a story precipitate decisions. There are moments when characters must make decisions, even if the decision is not to decide. (Think of the moral in Gershwin’s ‘Saga of Jenny’: never make up your mind.) It’s important to distinguish between degrees of crisis. Everyone faces all sorts of crises in their everyday lives. Some are relatively trivial. Some can be life and death decisions. Should I risk my own life to save someone else’s? Those kinds of decision have great dramatic intensity. But often the choice in ethics they present is straightforward. The best kinds of crisis for the purposes of fiction are those that do not have right or wrong, but only better or worse, outcomes or effects.
The decision that can only bring about a good outcome for all concerned is never a hard decision to make. Totally malevolent characters – characters who always want the worst for everyone – are hard to make convincing. They’re foils in a story: in other words they’re there to make the good characters look good.
The hard decision – and the most useful in the story – is the one that brings a mixed outcome, varying degrees of good and bad for various parties involved. How will characters react to the various outcomes the decision makes for them? In general we can say that the less predictable the outcome the better for the story. There’s suspense while we’re finding out what the real results of a decision are. Some choices take courage, others don’t. Some crises and some decisions form character, others confirm what is already known of a character. Ethicist Peter Singer makes a distinction between what he calls ultimate and what he calls restricted choices. I’ll let Singer show you the difference:
Ultimate choices take courage. In making restricted choices, our fundamental values form a foundation on which we can stand when we choose. To make an ultimate choice we must put in question the foundation of our lives.
Restricted choices are the ones premised on the assumed desirability of keeping the cart on the track. Ultimate choices could run you off the road, or run others off; they could be life threatening, they could have tragic consequences. Tragedy has to do with a perceived absence of alternatives. There’s no way out. There’s nowhere to be. Checkmate! Fate catches up.
From the point of view of the story maker, it’s ultimate choices that make vital characters and that make the action of a story vital. Shall I revenge the murder of my father, even though I’m not the vengeful type? Shall I regard myself as an instrument of fate, or can I choose my own destiny? Will I place myself in a position where I am very likely to die for what I say I believe in? Or is it more important to go on living? Is my life more important than that of those around me or that of those I love?
These are the choices that will give a reader something to think and think hard about after the book is closed. And though they are not the choices that most of us have to make every day, these are in fact choices from the real world – they’re choices that real people in real crises do have to make. These crises and decisions are going on all over the world every day. Look at the front page of the newspaper and you’ll see some. Look at page three or wherever the criminal news is, and you’ll see many more such crises, less newsworthy perhaps but still earth shattering for those who face them.
Asking questions/taking action:
- Make a list of ultimate choices.
- Have you faced any in your life? Do you think you are likely to face any?
Make a list of circumstances in which you would sacrifice your life. Or, if that’s too strong for you, make a list of serious sacrifices you would be prepared to make in particular circumstances.
- If someone murdered the members of your family, would you take revenge on them? How?
- As a ghost, would you haunt your own murderer? How?
- Role play in the story circle to imagine a conflict which cannot be resolved by talking.
- Or imagine all of the members of the story circle are caught up, half on either side, of a conflict caused elsewhere. Imagine how you would act if war were unexpectedly declared between your countries.
- Try to construct a story by making protagonist and antagonist characters face ultimate choices, the outcomes of which will be mixed rather than black and white.
- To make your characters more rounded and more human, to make identification more of a challenge for your reader, take the protagonist and antagonist from the story you’ve just written (or another earlier story). List those characteristics of each which allow the reader to identify with the protagonist rather than the antagonist. Now, list faults or flaws in character for your protagonist, list good points for your antagonist. Try to rewrite the story with this additional complication in character.
Pathos, empathy, identification: the skilled writer can have her reader express these for a character against the reader’s better judgement. How? In general, by knowing what is credible for a reader in the way of human response, in particular by knowing the characters in the story in great depth. Protagonists needn’t be likeable. Villains are more convincing if they’re not all bad, particularly they’re more convincing if we have some way of understanding them and some degree of empathy for their motives. Round characters aren’t all good or all bad, they’re a mixture. That’s what makes them human, real. The roundness of characters is what gives the reader mixed feelings – ambivalent feelings – about characters. That kind of inner conflict is healthy for the reader, it means that the story is giving her a complex and challenging experience.
Stories help us to see beyond the black and white version of people and events. Crimes aren’t simply committed by people who are naturally bad, crimes are committed by people who make wrong decisions, very often because they find themselves in terrible situations they can see no way out of. Suicide – a crime in most parts of the world – is the clearest example of this. Someone kills herself because she can simply see no alternative. She cannot see the world in which she could go on and in which things could become OK. Story writers are in a way providers of an antidote for ‘no way out’ thinking. That’s because the makers of fiction are dedicated to the possibility of worlds other than the one we know, and it’s because stories need to be resolved.
The reader of fiction wants a crisis, or a series of them leading to a climax and to resolution. Generally, she wants to see characters face the kind of crisis she herself would rather not have to face. She wants the characters to make the story and she wants to see the characters changed by the story. There’s suspense in watching or reading about dynamic characters because we don’t know how they’ll turn out. To make characters who are round and dynamic we need to know as much as possible about them. A common technique, helpful for this purpose, is to interview your characters outside of the story in order to find out more about who they are. For this purpose, below is a set of character questionnaires. You should feel free to add to or subtract from the lists (some of the questions in List 3 won’t apply to a children’s story), but try to answer at least most of the questions.
Hair colour/eye colour/facial features:
General health and fitness:
Gene pool (family illnesses, etc.):
Let’s, for argument sake, say that the character you’re surveying is a woman. Responses to questions above should cover most of the physical and appearance related aspects of a character. Next we should investigate her social position. This will help us to find out where she fits into the wider world of her story. Does she – in a general way – look up to or down on others? Does she have a good reason for doing so or not? Is she a woman on a mission? Does she have a chip on her shoulder?
Politics: e.g. What are your political affiliations?
Religion and/or superstitions: e.g. How serious are you about religion?
What do you do for fun?
What do you read, every day, every week?
What are your hobbies?
Who do you most admire in the world?
What are the most important qualities of a friend/a mother/a father?
What kind of pet do you have/would you like? Why?
Attitude to the world around you:
Lastly we should consider what one might call the psychology of the character.
Empathy rating (EQ):
Level of sexual interest:
Habits, good or bad:
Alcohol, drugs, cigarettes?
Ethics or morality?
What are the worst things people can do to each other?
What are the best things people can do for each other?
What’s your favourite colour?
What do you love most in the world?
What do you hate most in the world?
Who do you love?
What do you want?
What would you be prepared to do to get it?
What’s your favourite food?
Are there any foods you hate? Why?
Ambition: e.g. What do you want to be or do in life?
Temperament: e.g. Are you even tempered? Do you have violent mood swings? If so, what – or who – are they caused by?
General attitude to others:
Thinking through a list of questions like this helps a writer to fill in aspects of a character she may well not have considered at all. She may not have considered these aspects of character for the simple reason that these seemed not to concern the action of the story. It’s useful practice to apply the questionnaire to the known characters of famous authors. If you try this you’ll discover it’s quite amazing what fundamental things we might not know about a character whose story we feel we know very well.
Now a question arises as to how honest we can expect a character to be about herself when answering some of these very personal questions. One way around this potential problem is to ask and answer the questions in the third rather than the first person, or to conduct part of the survey in the first and part of the survey in the third person. How many characters should you survey before you write your story? Definitely survey all the major characters: especially protagonist and antagonist characters. Remember the principle of the unity of opposites. One needs to understand the differences between characters opposed to each other in order to understand how the conflict between them can develop.
A survey of the sort suggested above can only get us so close to a character. How do we get closer? Another kind of questionnaire that can be applied to characters asks them how they’d respond in particular crises. I call this the crisis questionnaire. The crisis questionnaire is often not as useful as it sounds for the simple reason that it’s usually difficult to declare beforehand in the calm of an interview the way one might behave in the heat of the moment. Nevertheless creating, and responding to, these questions which envisage crises, is a very useful exercise.
What would you do if…
- you woke up one morning to find yourself in a cage with a sleeping lion?
- you had been stuck in a broken down lift over the weekend with three very annoying people?
- you were stuck in a lift with the person you secretly love?
- you knew that you were the only person who knew who had committed a murder?
- you were on a sinking ship and you had a choice between certainly saving yourself and risking your life to save someone else/a child/an old man/a dog?
- your plane crashed on the snow covered side of a mountain and there was no food to eat apart from the passengers who had died?
- you came home and found your partner in bed with someone else?
Sometimes the crisis questionnaire, when it fails to give characters depth, leads to a useful idea for a plot complication.
Asking questions/taking action:
- Survey the characters of your favourite stories using the questionnaires above.
Survey the characters of the story you are writing now using the questionnaires above.
- Add to the crisis questionnaire list. Think of new ways to put your protagonists and antagonists up a tree. Could one of these complications provide the climax for a story?
Around the story circle:
Imagine a character each. Briefly introduce yourself. Interview each other using the character questionnaires. (Feel free to add more questions of your own.) Choose a crisis from the list you’ve made above and role play the reactions of your characters as they face the crisis. Repeat the procedure until you think you have a story.
We want to read about characters who change – who come to be themselves – as they deal with the crises in their story. How do characters change? The simple though mysterious answer is that they become themselves by doing what they have to do in order to be who they have to be. By realising potentials foreshadowed from the beginning of the story, through interaction with other characters and by negotiating (or just surviving) the complications of the plot, we end up with characters we’ll remember at the end of the story: a Macbeth who got what was coming to him, a tragic Pyramus and Thisbe, a (no longer sinister) taxi driver, a(n embarrassed) man who loves baked beans.
How do characters become who they have to be? Once we know who makes the story and how the story goes then we know how the characters have to be transformed in order to get there. This points to an important difference between the reader’s and the writer’s point of view. The surprise in the form of complication, that makes the story work for the reader, only works because it’s not a surprise for the writer. The writer already knows the characters’ destinations. That doesn’t mean every writer begins every work of fiction with the whole of the plot and every detail of character already decided. It does mean though that the story writer usually revises and re-drafts – that the story is finished – with that complete knowledge in mind. Plot = Character means that once enough is known on either side the story more or less writes itself.
It’s only in the absence of forward action major characters remain static. But consistency and credibility demand that changes in character are accountable, plausible and in general, gradual. A calm, sane man doesn’t become a homicidal maniac in one leap. How could he get from say, loving husband to wife murderer? Let’s try to imagine the stages of that change.
The man starts off with a suspicion. Perhaps someone has told him something he’d rather not believe about his wife. He dismisses the idea. It’s ridiculous. Is he the jealous type? He never thought so. He loves his wife more than anything or anyone on earth. But he can’t stop thinking about his suspicion. Or there’s new evidence. His wife can’t quite look him in the eye the way she used to. At least he feels that that’s the case. Is it his suspicion? Or is it really true? He tests his suspicions and – although he still has no concrete evidence – it seems that there may be some truth to the story he’d heard. He’s hurt. But he tries to go on with life as before. He denies the truth. After all, his wife hasn’t said anything. He can’t bring it up. And he has no concrete evidence. He can’t bring himself to bring it up. He resents his wife for the fact that he’s too scared to raise this issue with her. She hasn’t told him she wants to leave him. But now things are not the same as they were. There’s a gulf between them. He begins to feel bitter about this. His wife does nothing to improve the situation. She seems to have grown cold and distant. And now his bitterness turns to anger. He can’t say why he’s angry but he’s angry all the time. The house is full of his anger. His anger is driving his wife further from him. It seems they can’t talk about the problem. They can’t talk about anything anymore. Angry silence reigns in the house. And soon the husband can’t stand anything about his wife. He hates to see her. He hates to smell her perfume. He hates to hear her voice. He hates her. He hates her because he knows that she hates him. He knows that she is plotting against him. Probably she wants to murder him and take his money. There is nothing on this earth he hates as much as he hates her. He is maddened with hate. It’s him or her. And so he decides to kill her…
Dramatists call this process of attitude change – in this case from love to hate – transition. Transition of a character through crises is the means of getting the forward action right in the story. It’s the means of avoiding the two key potential problems with action: action out of nowhere on the one hand and the story grinding to a halt on the other. Think of these as lack of foreshadowing as opposed to lack of progress. In the first case there’s no credibility, in the second there’s no surprise and nothing to read for.
Asking questions/taking action:
- In what ways is your present lifestyle comfortable, safe, predictable? In what ways is it uncomfortable, unsafe, unpredictable?
- Imagine an event that would change your attitude to everything.
- What kind of event would make you leave your present home? Where would you go if you had to leave?
- Make a list of crises that could or would change your attitude to life and/or to the people around you?
Around the story circle: Silently, on paper, create characters with what appear to be fixed attitudes, beliefs, relationships. Passing those papers around the circle, try to create the circumstances for a story which will change those characters. When each sheet returns to its originator, the person who thought of the character in the first place can consider whether the change could be credible, whether there might be the makings of a story. Now out loud, around the circle, everyone can compare notes to decide whether there are individual or collaborative story possibilities.
point of view
In theatre it’s traditionally the case that the audience sees most if not all of the important action and therefore potentially knows more than characters who are offstage for various parts of the story. In prose fiction almost the same effect is created by third person omniscient point of view, the style of narration that’s been taken as unmarked (i.e. normal, so unnoticed) since the rise of the novel in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. (Note that this is the style of narration that has been used for all of the plot summaries in this book.)
How visible is point of view or style of narration to the reader? How visible or invisible could it or should it be? Let’s briefly consider the range of possibilities for point of view. The most obvious difference in point of view would be between the reader’s and the writer’s. In principle, the writer finishes knowing everything in and about the story; the reader begins knowing nothing. In principle, the God’s eye view of events we know as third person omniscient has to be the writer’s point of view because the writer is the God-like being who created the world in the story. But the narrator of a story might have a personality quite different from the author. In different stories, or even in the one novel, a writer might be able to switch between several different such omniscient narrators. So for the sake of argument we’ll leave the author out of the story and say the omniscient narrator’s position is ideally the opposite of the reader’s: the narrator knows already what will happen in the story, the reader reads to find out.
The difference between a play and prose fiction is that the characters on the stage get to speak for themselves, whereas the characters on paper have to be quoted or paraphrased. But an audience doesn’t see everything that happens to the characters in a play. Much of the important plot work may happen offstage. You might hear a scream or a gunshot off in the wings. Or you might just hear characters talking about a murder well after it has happened. All that happens or is mentioned onstage is in a particular order so as to conform to the pattern of the story as a whole. So, in a play there is an invisible narrative position at work. Author, narrator… there can be a whole cast of more and less invisible characters involved in the telling of a story. Let’s list the possible suspects and the key terms in use for talking about point of view:
- Narrator: the teller of the story, the person whose voice we hear when we hear the story. If we hear no voice then the narrator must be to some degree invisible.
- Persona: the character from whose point of view the story is told, again the voice in the story. The persona may be a narrating voice, i.e. the persona may be the narrator. The persona may be any other kind of voice. The conception of a persona is really based on the idea that where there are words there must be – or there must have been – someone speaking them. In classical theatre the persona was the mask the actor carried. When the actor wore that mask he became the character indicated by the mask. In poetry the persona is the character in whose voice the poem is delivered, even if there’s no audible sign of any speech. It’s the personality the author presents to the reader; it’s not necessarily the author’s personality.
- Protagonist: the character from whose point of view the action may be seen and judged. Usually, but not always, the hero or heroine of the story, the good guy, the guy with the white hat.
- Antagonist: the character against whose point of view the action may be seen and judged. Usually, but not always, the villain of the story, the bad guy, the guy with the black hat.
- Chorus: In classical Greek drama the chorus was/were those voices in unison which addressed the audience with the function of explaining the action or its moral implications.
- Author: otherwise known as the writer, or the novelist, or the playwright or dramatist, the person who wrote the story.
Note that in an interactive story the reader gets to be in some or all of these roles.
It’s important for a writer to recognize that among all of these characters one has a lot of choice in determining who tells a story and how a story is told.
The narrator may know the story from beginning to end before she starts telling it. Or the narrator may be – like the detective protagonist in a crime fiction story – a character who reveals to the reader just what she knows when she knows it. Or she might be just one step ahead of the reader. She’s going down a dark alley to follow a clue, but – as a reader – you’re not quite sure which clue she’s following. Not yet. You’re confident that her new knowledge will be revealed to you shortly. Although possibly you’ll find out what happens to her before you find out what she knew, but that you didn’t. This brings us to the point of view known as third person limited omniscient.
Consider our detective following her clue down the blind alley. We see and hear what the protagonist sees and hears. If we hear of it directly through her voice then the narration is in the first person. If though we see not with her eyes but as if with a camera over her shoulder or just behind her then the narration is third person limited omniscient. The omniscience of the narrator is limited to – and may actually be less than – the knowledge of a particular character, usually the protagonist. In third person limited omniscient narration we may know more and we may know less than the protagonist narrator. The camera can scout ahead to warn the reader of dangers before the protagonist knows of them. The camera may lag a little behind. The character with whom the camera travels, so to speak, is known as the point of view character.
Distinguishing between events already known and events as they unfold is an effective method for heightening suspense in a story. A flashback is a story within a story. Usually it’s one person’s story, told from the position of or from a position close to, that character’s point of view. A flashback reveals, through the memory of a character (or a narrator), events in the past that have become vital to the understanding of present events as they unfold the story. A flashback builds suspense by delaying the action that will bring us to the story’s climax.
Let’s now give a little more time to the other main styles of narration in terms of point view. There’s first person: the telling of the story by the character who calls herself ‘I’ throughout. That character may be closely identified with the author. There may be almost no distance between the author and this kind of narrator/persona or narrating persona. Or there could be a great gulf. A very peaceful and loving and gentle person can write a homicidal maniac in the first person. Keeping in mind the playwright’s old dictum, all your characters are you, we’ll skip for now the question about what aspect of personality would being revealed in creating a convincing murderer. First person narration builds empathy in a way that third person omniscient narration has difficulty matching. That’s because first person narration is given to us in the voice of the character. The obvious advantage of theatre is that characters get to speak in their own voices. In prose fiction though, when the story is narrated in the first person then the reader is in the head of the protagonist. Stream of consciousness – the technique pioneered by James Joyce but used by many twentieth century authors – places before the reader the disorganized train of thoughts in the character’s head, as they unfold in real time. (Or at least some version of that ‘real’ train of thoughts.) One of the limitations of the first person point of view is that the reader is restricted to one character’s view of the story, and to one character’s knowledge of what is happening in the story. Or at least the reader is restricted to the viewpoint of one character at a time.
Third person limited omnisicient is the usual compromise between third person omniscient and first person narration. The third person limited omniscient narrator usually knows more than the reader but still doesn’t know everything there is to know. Probably she doesn’t know the end of the story. It’s easy to build identification between the reader and the narrator with limited omniscience. It’s likely that both will arrive at the same moment at the recognition the climax depends on.
It’s easy to overlook the possibility of second person narration. That’s what an apostrophe in classic drama is: the character addresses an absent party or thinks aloud, the effect being that the audience hears what the character is really thinking. An aside is when a character steps out of role in order to address the audience directly. This stage stopping action is particularly apt in comedy. It can help to build or to undermine the audience’s identification with a certain character. In pantomime or melodrama it’s a way of encouraging audience participation. The character making the aside may appeal for sympathy. But she may (cheers) or may not (boos) receive it. A letter is also second person narration, as is a harangue. Any speech or writing addressing a reader or audience directly as ‘you’ counts as second person narration. And like a political speech addressed to you the voter, second person narration can be intimidating, or boring. It can give the reader a feeling of wishing to be left alone. Perhaps the most serviceable type of second person narration is the telling of a secret. This gives the reader or the audience the feeling that they have the privilege of receiving information for their ears only. In a novel this has some credibility. After all, you’re reading a book alone, even if you’re on a crowded train. In the theatre the necessary suspension of disbelief is harder – but still possible – to make convincing. It can build audience solidarity: we’re all sharing a secret together.
Lastly there’s what’s called objective point of view. This is like the narrative style of a documentary. Events are reported without comment or feeling so that the reader has to make up her own mind about the story. Objective narration, like the news story, tends to set all events in an immediate past of which limited, salient parts are shown to the reader. Objective narration is useful for giving the action of the story a ‘public’ kind of feeling, for throwing events into the realm of common knowledge. It’s more or less the opposite of stream of consciousness or of first person internal monologue of the sort that draws the reader’s attention to the inner workings of a character’s mind.
Narrative position can shift through a story. The limitations of first person narration can be somewhat overcome by the shifting the first person to bring in several points of view. Here then is a summary of point of view possibilities:
- First person: The story is told by an ‘I’, that is, one of the characters is telling the story.
- Second person: The story is addressed directly to the reader as ‘you’, as in a letter.
- Third person omniscient: The story is told by a narrator who knows everything and who tells the reader what and when and how the reader needs to know. A third person omniscient narrator can read the minds of all of the characters. Nothing can be concealed from her.
- Third person limited omniscient: This narrator usually takes on the viewpoint of one of the characters. This narrator may know more or less or exactly what a particular character knows. She could be a guardian angel staying a step ahead of the character she’s looking after. The character from whose point of view we are seeing a particular part of the action is – in either third person omniscient or limited omniscient narration – known as the point of view character.
- Objective: This is like the narrative style of a documentary. Events are recorded as if they were news.
- Shifting: Shifting point of view can refer to changes in the point of view from which the story is narrated (i.e. the story starts in one character’s voice but continues in another’s). It can also refer to changes in the style of narration (e.g. from first person to third person, etc.)
A note on time and point of view:
The selection of tense and aspect is closely connected with the development of a narrative point of view in a story in English. The unmarked tense for the telling of stories is the simple past. That’s the tense most commonly used in stories narrated in the third person omniscient mode. But just as there are many other choices for points of view so there are many available tense and aspect possibilities. The present tense can make the reader’s experience of events more exciting and immediate, but like any novelty, it can wear thin. The first person present continuous can be even more urgent: ‘I am walking down the street. I am turning the corner. I am taking the gun out of its holster.’ But narration can only continue in this way for so long before it tires the reader, with the result that immediacy is lost.
It’s through the contrasting of tense and aspect selections that the best effects are created. A shift from third to first person and simple past into present continuous can make the reader’s experience of events more immediate – more ‘here and now’ – than it was. But these contrasts need to be few and handled with caution, and they need to be justified by the story. If you’re already there you can’t get any more immediate. It’s very easy, through such contrasts, to end up merely confusing the reader.
Asking questions/taking action:
- Choose any of the stories told in this book and re-tell them, from the first-person point of view of the character of your choice (protagonist or antagonist, or even of a minor character), then from a third person (limited omniscient) point of view, close to that of the first person narrator you had previously chosen.
- Re-tell a famous story from an antagonist’s point of view (e.g. The Lord of the Rings from Gollum’s p-o-v, or Harry Potter from Voldemort’s).
- Do any of these narrative shifts suggest new stories, needing to be told?
- Re-tell a story of your own from a different point of view or by shifting point of view.
Around the story circle: Choose a story to tell from different points of view. Can these versions/points of view be combined to make a single story comprised of different voices? (The novels of William Faulkner are a useful guide to some experimental possibilities for this kind of story telling.)
checklist of story essentials
Writing stories seems difficult for many reasons, and principally because in a story so many different things need to happen at once. Most of those things need to go unnoticed while they’re happening; that’s because if the reader’s attention were drawn to them she would have a hard time following the plot or identifying with the characters, these being two of the main ways of staying in a story. The reader needn’t be constantly wondering ‘what’s the conviction of the story (?)’ or ‘is this dialogue foreshadowing something (?)’ or ‘how will the resolution of the conflict in the story prove the conviction (?)’. When the average reader – as opposed to the student of fiction – starts asking questions like that, it means that something’s not working. When the reader asks ‘where’s the conflict (?)’ or ‘where’s the suspense (?)’ or ‘why should I care about these people (?)’ then the story has serious problems. In that case, structure – or rather lack of structure – has become visible to the reader.
This manual has so far been about the many mainly invisible things that have to happen in order to make a story work. Plot, character, action, surprise, conviction, complication, motivation, identification, conflict, suspense, resolution: the list of musts is long and the difficult thing about writing a story is that these (never mentioned) things – things which the story is not about – generally need to be coordinated. Stories are complex in this way and yet stories are a natural and regular part of human interaction. It’s through stories, by and large, we learn who and how to be. Most people, with a little training, can learn how to make good stories: stories that involve a reader from beginning to end and prove a clear conviction. How can it be that something so complicated can be done by just about everyone? A good analogy would be riding a bicycle. It’s difficult to begin to learn to ride a bicycle; there are so many different actions to coordinate with hands and with feet, and if you don’t keep your balance then you just fall off. But once you’ve got the knack, you keep your balance and while you might be a little rusty if you haven’t ridden for a while, when you get back on you quickly regain whatever skill you’d had previously. It’s the same with stories; once you’ve created a few, you’ll forget that it was ever hard.
Take another analogy for the work of connecting the long list of things (conviction and motivation, etc) that need to be working in order for the story to succeed. Once enough of the elements are in place, the story can be ‘switched on’, like the lights in a Christmas tree. Our old formula – plot = character – means that once enough is known on either side of the equation the story more or less writes itself. The characters have somewhere to go because they’re creating the action.
Most people think that the most difficult thing about writing a story (or doing any kind of creative work) is getting started. Where to start? The simple answer is: don’t.
The function of the story circle (of any conversation in the direction of a story) should be to collect materials, elements, ideas which could be combined into a story. Keeping notes for ideas as they come to you, rough sketches, character questionnaires, keeping a dream diary by your bed: through such methods you can keep story material constantly brewing at the back of your head. Just look in the pot now and then to see if you’ve got the makings of a story. If so, then ladle them out and get to work. If not, then stir the pot some more, add more ingredients, look again later.
Once you’ve got the makings of a story, you need to make sure that the elements are working together. The connectedness of a story’s elements and the need for motivation mean that if you’ve got a problem with one aspect of your story then you’ve also got a problem with another. Before we go to the items though, let’s recap the most essential points made so far in the manual.
Stories prove convictions by resolving conflicts. Action and characters in stories need to be motivated. Stories need to be credible but they need suspense. In other words, the story has to make sense as far as it is known but there needs to be enough unknown in a story for it to be worth the reader’s while going on. If in doubt as to whether your story is and does all it must, check through the list below.
Characters want something. They participate in conflicts with each other because of this. They behave consistently and their actions are motivated: they do what they do for a reason. What they do shows us who they are. In the case of central – usually dynamic – characters the process of having to respond to crises brings about a transition, so that these are not the same at the end as the characters we met at the beginning. Most importantly characters have to be real enough to matter to a reader or to an audience. The best means of making characters matter to a reader is to place them in crisis situations that matter to them. If your characters don’t care about what’s happening then why should your reader?
What all stories have in common in terms of sequencing is that we as readers move forward from the known into the territory that was formerly unknown. The idea of plot is best expressed in questions like: What happens? or Who does what to whom and how? What are the fundamentals of plot? We could describe them in terms of a skeleton structure something like this: There’s a situation. For some reason things can’t stay the way they were. Something changes. At which point, if not before, a character with whom we identify (or would like to) emerges and has to respond (or can’t respond to) to some change. That change and the response to it create a new situation, a new set of circumstances, which could mark the end of the story, or merely its next phase. In general the tension and suspense in the story should build the action up through a series of crises or complications until a climax and then a resolution is reached, at which point there will be a new situation or set of circumstances in play. The minimum plot structure for a story is Grab * Turn * Resolution. Without this much structure it’s difficult to argue that there’s a story at all.
a logical sequence of events:
There is no strict rule as to the direction or the way in which time must pass in a story. Time could for instance pass steadily backwards, from flashback to flashback, with every current situation explained by means of the one preceding it. Or time could go round in circles. So it’s important to separate the order of events in the plot from the chronological sequence of events that might be apparent (or that might have to be extracted) from the story. In the simplest plots (for instance in fairytales) these two lines coincide: the order of unfolding of our knowledge of events as readers is the order in which events happen (the chronological order). So if you drew diagrams to show each you’d have the same diagram. In more complex stories – and especially where flashbacks or other memory devises are used – the two lines might look quite different. And it’s when they’re different that you might need to draw such diagrams, in order to keep track of a complicated pattern of events and narration.
There’s a situation. Stories have settings because characters and events happen somewhere and some-when. They don’t just appear out of or vanish into thin air. There’s a curious paradox that the more specific the setting of a story (the stronger its here-and-now feeling) the more universally readable it will be. That’s because the more specific and tangible the setting, the more vivid it is. And the more vivid the location of the story the more engaging the story will be to the reader. We all like to know where we are. And we can all use some help in imagining that place and that time.
Everything in a story happens for a reason. Everyone in a story does what she or he does for a reason. That reason need not be clear at the time but it should have become clear at some point during the course of the story. The irrational behaviour of characters who are stark, raving mad, is in the story because it serves some function. There’s ‘method in it’ as Shakepeare’s Polonius says. It’s not only the characters in a story that are motivated. The events in which they participate – in other words the plot as a whole – is also motivated. There’s always a risk of spoiling the plot if the motivation of the action is unveiled too suddenly or too clumsily or in the wrong order. If you understand the relationship between the order of events in the plot and the chronological sequence of events in the story then you understand how the story balances two key demands: the demand to motivate its action and the demand to provide the reader with suspense.
Every aspect of a story needs to be able to be believed. It needs to be plausible and convincing. If you can’t believe what’s happening in a story then you usually stop reading. Characters – in particular – need to be consistent. Character transition is necessary because unmotivated changes lack credibility. If you can’t believe the characters would do what you see them doing in the story then you won’t be able to stay in the story as a reader. Action is credible where it is motivated by the plot and where it allows the motives of characters play.
Stories are fundamentally worth paying attention to, because we, as readers do not know what is going to happen. That lack of information is the most basic type of suspense. Suspense makes us read with a sense of anticipation. Suspense represents the tension and interest that keep you in the story for as long as it takes to find out what will happen. When someone spoils the plot for you by telling you what will happen in the story, the real crime is in killing the suspense. The suspense is gone because you already know what will happen before it does happen. Fortunately though, people tend to be good at forgetting the endings of particular stories, or the way certain genres of stories tend to turn out. And so in these cases suspense is returned and the reader can manage to return to the story as if she’d not heard it before. (This is why it’s possible to watch your favourite film again and again, as long as you leave enough of a gap between viewings.) Conflict is an important source of suspense in a story. Any kind of rivalry between characters creates suspense because the reader needs to find out who the winner in the conflict will be. A deadline likewise creates suspense. If the reader can hear the clock ticking in the background she knows that time is running out. The less time left the more the tension. A protagonist in a terrible – but redeemable, i.e. not necessarily fatal – situation likewise creates suspense. The worse the protagonist’s situation, the greater the suspense. If there’s a difference between the order of events in the plot and the chronological sequence of events in the story, then that difference is motivated by the need to create suspense. Action is only credible if we as readers know why it is happening. But – and here’s the paradox – we as readers only stay in the story because of our need to know what is happening. So the order in which we know what is happening has to balance the demands of suspense with the demands of credibility.
Conflict is what most commonly fuels the suspense in a story. It arises from the fact that characters want something or some things, or they want something to happen or to not happen. Conflicts commonly arise from the fact that protagonist and antagonist want the same thing, for instance in the case of the tragic triangle where two men want the same woman. Conflict requires resolution of the kind which can often serve to prove the conviction of a story.
crisis, climax and resolution, forward action:
The story and everyone in it need to move forward through crises towards a climax and the resolution of a story. Crises are the moments in the story which call for decision. Getting through crises develops the forward action of the story. When there’s no forward action the reader feels that the story’s not going anywhere.
Just as a reader expects consistency of a character, so a reader expects a story to stay in genre. Genre describes the rules – for instance of structure – that apply to this kind of story. In comedy the rules say that there’s a different kind of ending from the sort we get in tragedy. Love stories, detective stories, westerns, science fiction: each of these genres has its own distinctive patterns which writers follow and readers expect. Disturbing generic expectations is one of the most interesting kinds of surprise the modern reader can be given.
The conviction (sometimes called premise) is what the story as a whole proves. To be convincing a story needs conviction. Conviction is the hidden arrow fired at the beginning, that finds its target at the end of the story. Or let’s try another metaphor. It’s the motor ticking away under the skin of the story. It needn’t be laboured like a moral or a lesson but it is what the story teaches. It functions much as argument does in a book or an essay, to give the whole work coherence. Without a unifying conviction a story drifts and may become incoherent. A conviction balances and directs the conflict in a story. Conflict in a story is resolved by the proving of the conviction.
point of view and voice:
Stories are told and that means someone tells them. The least noticeable voice and point of view in a story is the most conventional: traditionally that’s the third person omniscient style of narration. But the fact that that voice is not immediately apparent as an identity associated with the story does not by any means indicate that the story is simply telling itself. The ‘story simply telling itself’ is an effect of – and not a style of – narration. The serious study of stories involves understanding who is doing the telling and where they’re doing their telling from. The making of stories likewise involves decisions about who is speaking, where they’re speaking from, how visible or obvious they are.
framing and style of narration:
Point of view implies framing. In other words the story has an outside. In the case of third person narration the story is told from the outside. In the case of first person narration the story may appear to be told from the inside. But unless the story is told in the form of a personal diary, then it’s highly likely that the narrator knows at the beginning what will happen at the end. The author at any rate has that kind of knowledge by the time her story is finished. Does – or should – a story draw attention to its frame? The answer to that question will determine or be determined by decisions about voice and point of view. The story which contains another story usually cannot help drawing attention to the fact of its framing. At least one of the narrating voices in that kind of story is shown as the voice of a character in the story framing that inside story. In general the conventions of the story demand that the narration hide the framing. One stays in the story as a reader because one cannot see its edges.
Just as the reader’s pleasure in a story is usually greatest when the story’s structure is least visible, so for the writer it’s best to begin with unstructured ideas, with a hunch, with a single element: a grab, some vital unknown knowledge, the conditions for a conflict, a strange circumstance. Note that these ‘starting points’ for creating a story need bear no relation to the order of events in the finished story, or to the order in which those events are told. You might well think of a plot all in the order it needs to be told, but this would be a happy accident. Writers need not pressure themselves to think of all the right stuff readymade and in the right order.
Early in this chapter the art of never beginning was recommended as a way of avoiding writer’s block. If you’re constantly collecting story materials, then when you come to look for the something your story lacks, your kitchen will never be empty. You’ll have always already got something brewing in the pot. There’s another sense of ‘never beginning’ though and that is related to the simple fact that Aristotle was more or less wrong about the beginning * middle * end structure of the story. Most good stories start in the middle of things. In media res the ancients use to say. Stories start with serious action, with complication: that’s what grabs the reader’s attention. A good grab for a story is always already a complication, hopefully the first of many. You read on to go back to find out what happened before to bring the story and its characters into their present situation. A lot of beginning writers particularly miss this point and insist on starting the story with an event in the distant past, like the birth of the protagonist. That might work out if that particular being born has something very particular about it. In general though it’s better to look for the action that will bring the reader into the story. You can always use flashbacks later on to take the reader back and show her whatever she needs to see of the past to understand where the plot and the characters are headed. Flashbacks aren’t the only way though to begin in the midst of forward action. Fairytales depend on straightforward linear action. There are no flashbacks in traditional fairytales, yet these usually simple stories grab the reader by beginning with action that comes in the form of a serious disturbance of the prior order of things. ‘Once upon a time there was a sleepy little…’: more than a couple of sentences like this and you’ll find that your reader is asleep too. It’s only the most boring of story tellers who insist on telling you things from the beginning.
Asking questions/taking action:
- Test the stories you’ve created (or half created) so far against the checklist.
- Try to create a story by focusing initially on one of the items in the list above that you’ve generally neglected so far.
In the story circle: Divide all of the story elements among the members of the circle so that each member prepares just that element for a story to tell in the next meeting. Talk around the circle to see whether the elements each brings can be combined into one collaborative story. Perhaps there will be several stories in the circle, with missing elements needing to be filled in. Perhaps there will be as many stories as members. Some stories will work, some won’t happen; the important thing is to think together about how a story works (or doesn’t).
Together or alone: Make a story about making a story. For instance, you could create an allegorical character to represent each of the elements of a story… ‘Let me introduce myself. I’m Plot and I insist on action…’
rules are for breaking
A story needs to remain open if a reader is to stay with it. Now while the story is being read for the first time – provided it satisfies the criteria of suspense and credibility – this is easily achieved. The story is open in this basic sense because the reader doesn’t know – but wants to know – what will happen. The story is open simply because it hasn’t all happened yet. Once a story is known the situation is different. The story that survives, does so by being available to different audiences, by being and meaning different things to different readers. In the long run it’s the openness of a story to interpretation – and so its availability to different kinds of audience – that makes a story worth reading.
What this manual has provided so far is a simplified account of a complex set of assumptions: the assumptions that are commonly held about stories and what they can and must do. The craft of writing lies in learning the means of conforming to these assumptions. The art of writing lies in surpassing – in going beyond – such assumptions. Creative work, to succeed, is of, but goes beyond, the conditions or the context enabling it. It goes beyond by bringing new understanding – a critical understanding – of its here and now (i.e. of its enabling context). Far from hitting its reader over the head with a moral, the best new fiction presents its reader with conviction in a somewhat riddling form. The reader learns the story’s truth for her through the interpretive work of discovering the story’s meaning. The good story makes the reader work, makes her work to know, to feel, to be there; it leaves the good reader with the feeling that however hard it was to reach the place beyond all other stories, somehow it was the right place to be. You could say that the art of fiction is in making the new product of the imagination appear as if it had always existed, as if this particular work had always had a place as a necessary and noteworthy member of the canon of great stories. New (and lasting) memberships in the canon of literature are mainly offered to those authors and works which have succeeded in breaking the rules which had previously been in force.
What would it mean in practice to go beyond the assumptions that everyone else has about the thing you’re making? How would you know when you got to such a point? Ezra Pound wrote that the great writer was the one who created the style by which he would be judged. How would you know when you got to the beyond of all the assumptions? That’s a difficult question. The fact that people suddenly couldn’t understand you might prove that you’d arrived; it might simply prove that you’d stopped making sense.
Stories provide pictures of the world. How big a canvas do they need to be painted on? How much world do we need to see, can we stand to see? How much action does a story need to show? If we think of conflict as essential, then how many characters does a story have to have? How spare can a story be? How few characters can one have and still have a story? Consider Frederic Brown’s very short story ‘The Solipsist’.
This is the story of one Walter B. Jehovah. (This was his real name.) Walter B. Jehovah was a life long solipsist. A solipsist – if you’re wondering – is someone who believes that she is the only thing that really exists, that other people exist only by virtue of the fact that she imagines them.
This is all fine in practice but Walter B. Jehovah took the radical step of becoming a practicing solipsist. The results were rapid and devastating. His wife left him for another man. He lost his job. He broke his leg while trying to prevent a black cat from passing in front of him.
In hospital he decided to end it all.
He looked up at the stars and wished them away. The stars were gone. He wished all people gone, and the hospital grew strangely quiet. He wished the world away and then he himself was suspended in a void. It was no trouble next to get rid of his body. But when he actually took the ultimate step of willing himself out of existence, nothing happened.
It appeared that there might be a limit to solipsism. And as soon as he had thought this thought, Walter B. Jehovah heard a voice which simply said ‘yes.’
So there was a limit! Walter B. Jehovah asked whose the voice was. The voice told him that it belonged to the creator of the universe that Walter had just wished away. And the voice gratefully told him that now he – that creator – could finally cease his own existence, and find oblivion. Walter could take over. Walter wasn’t very happy with this information. After all, he had been trying to will himself out of existence; his objective hadn’t been to become responsible for the universe.
Of course, this last creator already knew this. He told Walter that Walter would have to do what he did, which was to create a universe and wait till someone believes what he believed and wills it out of existence. When that happens, he told Walter, it would be possible to retire, and to let the new creator take over. There was a goodbye and that was it.
Walter B. Jehovah was now truly alone. And so he did the only thing he could do. He spent the next seven days creating heaven and earth.
‘The Solipsist’ is a text that puts to the test questions about what a story minimally has to be or has to do. Among other things, this story shows how difficult it can be to not have a story. Characters and setting and conflict seem to hang around – even and perhaps especially – if you try to wish them away. Science fiction has a particular affinity for this ‘what if…’ aspect of the story. The impact of the psyche on the universe is, as in ‘The Solipsist’, potentially infinite.
The writer makes a universe. But she doesn’t make it out of nothing. She makes it from pre-existing materials. Stories can change the world because they can show how the world is (but we couldn’t see), and because they can show how the world could be. In doing so, stories bring to life the ‘what if…?’ principle of fiction. This brings us back to where we began, with the story’s most essential element: surprise. One of the most interesting ‘what if…?’s a story can draw attention to in our time is the ‘what if…?’ of genre. What if the reader discovered she wasn’t in the genre she thought she was reading? We’ve seen a few examples already. Now it’s time to recognise that there’s an important connection between genre and conviction. That’s because genres themselves have convictions and writing that’s in genre in any particular story proves what the genre in general proves. That proving of the same old conviction can become dull for the reader. Take the traditional detective story in the Sherlock Holmes mould. It proves that bourgeois society is under threat from clever, evil individuals but can be protected from them by cleverer good individuals. This doesn’t mean that every ‘detective’ story is stuck with this classic conviction. Nor does it diminish the skill or excitement in Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories. It’s just that the genre he helped to start has moved on. One of the best ways of surprising the reader is by stepping out of genre with an unexpected conviction. In the case of the detective story, that stepping out might be accomplished simply by writing from a different class position. Berthold Brecht’s theatre of alienation is one of the best examples of this kind of surprise for the audience. Challenging the conventions of genre is a way of showing that the rules of the world can be changed. That might be the most hopeful and important conviction a story could prove.
Stories can change the world because they provide us with models of worlds changing, with characters in the process of becoming who they’re yet to be when the action begins. Stories themselves change, in the telling and in being retold, in being recontextualised. There are great continuities too in the form and the content of stories. At either end of western literature, in Homer’s Odyssey and in Joyce’s Ulysses we can see that, while the art of the story has evolved, the image of a particular character and the idea of his travels and troubles persists. The modern novel and its conventions are very different from those of the oral epic. In all the long journey in forms which has brought the reader to the story as we know it today, the cutting edge has been where the accepted forms were put to the test, where the rules were being broken, new patterns being formed.
The world as we know it is patterned with – and understood – largely by means of stories. So it’s fair to say that the work of testing out what the story can do, how it can reveal the world as it is, or as it could or could never be, is among the most important of the many world bettering tasks facing humanity. This isn’t work we should simply let others (Hollywood, for instance) do for us, as if we didn’t deserve or couldn’t have any say. Everyone can and should participate in the world bettering work of making or telling his or her own stories.
Asking questions/taking action:
- Look back through the book and make a list of rules (say ten, less, more?) for the writing of stories. Try to think of ways in which each of these rules could be broken or bent – or brought into question – by a story. Would that story still work, still satisfy a reader?
- Do readers deserve to be satisfied by stories? If not, then what do they deserve?
Try to make new rules for the making of stories. Try to put these into practice.