"" Rob Parnell's Writing Academy Blog: April 2009

Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Story Formula

I've been reading Robert McKee's book on 'Story', where he outlines what he perceives to be ideal story structure - not just for movies but for novels and short stories too. He's based his theories on a lifetime of examining story form and structure - and from being employed to read story proposals for Hollywood studios.

His conclusions are interesting and educational - not least because they're so specific!

McKee is able to identify stories that work and why - but also how to structure them for maximum effect. Below I've tried to summarize his theories.

Defining Story Terms

First we need to understand the terms of reference Robert McKee uses, in order to fully grasp what he's saying.

An Emotional Exchange is the smallest fragment of drama within a story. It is a point at which a character openly deals with either his external world or his internal demons. It is commonly called a Beat.

Ideally, a Beat in a story should be non-coincidental, which means it arises as a result of the protagonist's actions or world view, or agenda, and that puts him in conflict with his surroundings (usually other characters).

A Life Value is a state of being that a character must represent or express in order to be interesting to a reader or viewer. It is changes in Life Values that the storyteller should be primarily concerned with.

For the purposes of Story, the writer needs to think in terms of Life Value Opposites - as in life or death, good or evil, happy or sad, bored or elated. A journey from one Life Value to its opposite is what constitutes a good Scene.

A Scene is made up of 4 or 5 Beats that take the character from one emotional state to another.
In order for a character to grow and change, the reader needs to show a series of 2 to 5 Scenes that become a Sequence.

A Sequence is a dramatic demonstration of the character's emotional path through the story. A Sequence should end with a Scene of more intensity and/or impact that any of the preceding.

A series of 2 to 12 Sequences then constitutes an Act.

Phew! With me so far?

Story Structure

To McKee, who has studied stories back as far as 3000BC, all stories are constructed around 2 to 4 Acts that take the reader, listener or viewer, on a logical - usually linear - journey from one emotional state to another that, throughout the story, is becoming consistently more intense.

He says the purpose of a story is to show that a believable main character can move from one point in his life to a time of absolute and irreversible change. Without this element, argues McKee, there is no story.

It is up to the writer to use the above story elements - beats, scenes, sequences and acts - to prove his theme: that there is a logical pattern and sense to life and that we, the reader, can learn through fiction.

In other words, writers teach us valuable lessons about life through story.

What About Plot?

You'll notice that in none of the above is there any mention of plot, indeed only a little reference to character. There's a reason for this.

Robert McKee believes that the story structure he presents is innate - it exists whether the writer wants to believe it -and even when he rejects it - which he says is acceptable, if not to be encouraged sometimes.

McKee believes that plot is simply the unique and personal way that the writer might choose to show the elements of Story.

I guess he's also saying that the writer can do what he likes but if the 'elements' aren't there, he's failed to create a convincing story - which is open to debate.

I suppose it depends on what the story is for.

Is it primarily to teach or entertain? Is it to show that life can be better? Or is it to show that life not only stays static but that change is not necessarily a good thing?

These are all personal issues that the writer must confront at some point in his story construction - and decide for himself.

So There You Have It

If you ever wanted a story template to hang an idea upon I think it's probably above. I'm sure McKee would argue that it's not so much a formula as a timeless universal structure that is somehow part of our DNA.

I agree.

I think there's a reason why humans find satisfaction in fiction.

Because people need a sense of purpose in their lives. We all want to believe that ultimately things will make sense - that there's meaning to our existence.

Because what's the alternative?

Futile, infinite, godless chaos?

I think we, as writers, know better than that.

Don't you?

Keep Writing!

Your Success is My Concern
The Easy Way to Write

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Universe Wants You to Succeed

I must be the last person in the world to have started reading The Secret. We bought the book last week and have the video on order. Can't wait.

I'm really enjoying the book - not least because it's outlining what I've always believed.

It struck me as amusing that its primary author, Rhonda Byrne, is a fellow Australian. She explains in the intro to the The Secret that when the idea came to her, she had to travel to the US to find validation and willing exponents of her cause.

I wondered if this meant she couldn't find any positive people in Australia!

Having lived here for nearly a decade now (I'm a Brit if you didn't know) I think I can relate to her dilemma.

There's a weird attitude that permeates the society over here - and is endorsed and promoted by no less than the government - that success happens to other people, usually in other countries.

Australia likes to think of itself as a classless country - where no 'Bruce' is better than the other bloke. It's all part of the 'fair go' mentality that we're apparently famous for. The downside being that if you are successful, you're somehow not playing the game.

We love our sports people - it's okay if they win.

But artists? Writers? Actors? Film makers? Nah.

That's being way too ambitious. Crass even. Success in these areas is shunned. For evidence, look at any Australian artist in the last fifty years that, despite all the negativity and poo-pooing have actually made it. What's the first thing they do?

Yep - they leave, off to more appreciative shores.

Clive James, Germaine Greer, Dame Edna Everage, the Bee Gees, Olivia Newton John, Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman, Scott Hicks, Greg MacLean, Matthew Reilly, Bryce Courtney, Paul Hogan, Anthony LaPaglia and the late great Heath Ledger, to name but a tiny few. And they all complain that Australia is so darn unsupportive - so down on itself - so reluctant to invest cash in its own talent - that they can't wait to get away!

It's not that we don't have superstars here clearly.

It's curious to me that at least 60% of the great creative writing websites out there come from Australia. I guess that's because the Net allows Australians with talent to reach out beyond our own shores and interact with more positive folks.

Which brings me back to Rhonda Byrne.

She's a writer whose life was turned around by self belief and positivity. She had a vision of a better world that could inspire people through her writing - and once she'd made the commitment to her project, she found evidence of The Secret everywhere.

You see what writers can do?

Just like I've always said. Writers don't just scribble down words.

We create an edifice of solid thought - and make our internal world real by simply writing things down.

Everything starts with writing.

All the great inventions. All progress and civilisation. Even all the bad stuff starts with someone having an idea, a vision that they then make real through writing.

So whatever you want in your life, write it down.

Make it real.

And don't forget to get your work out there too.

I think one of the failings of The Secret is that it doesn't stress taking action quite enough. The philosophy relies on a passive element - that simply believing enough will attract the things you want to you.

I'm not sure this is altogether true.

If you accept The Secret's premise then, given the amount of work the Universe has to do to bring you wealth, happiness and love, I think the least we can do is to help it - by taking positive action and actually working towards your goals.

Surely, if you're too passive, isn't the Universe going to think, "Well, do you really want this? You're not showing me you do!"

Because we all know that books aren't going to write themselves. Success at making movies or designing cathedrals isn't just going to be bestowed upon you just because you want it.

You have convince the Universe of your intention and desire by acting on your goals, making plans, strategizing and working on your dreams.

Combine The Secret with taking positive, focussed action on a daily basis and I believe you'll find that everything Rhonda says will come true.

Keep Writing!

Rob Parnell's Writing Academy
Your Success is my Concern

Thursday, April 2, 2009

To Plan or Not to Plan

It's an old debate - one that never ceases to divide writers. Should you make a plan before you write - or should you just start and see what happens?

An esteemed subscriber recently raised the issue again in the context of 'types' of writers. It seemed to her that genre fiction writers probably needed a plan in order to deal with the complexities of plotting - and cut down on editing in the subsequent drafts.

However, she maintained, it was the more 'literary' writers that insisted that planning somehow stifled creativity. And that a good literary writer didn't mind editing for sense and structure after the first draft was down.

She asked me which I thought was the best approach.

Do Plans Work?

It's hard to imagine a business succeeding without a plan - but clearly some do. Even very large businesses - which surely don't intend to go billions into debt, though it seems to happen all too often nowadays.

Some would say that many marriages survive without a formal plan - just a commitment is enough, as long as you work on it every day. But there again, how many marriages actually last? Less than 50% was the last figure I heard quoted.

Most anything that has a definite end-date needs a plan - a military operation for instance or an expedition to climb Everest.

But what about writing novels, books and short stories? Are these activities too precious, too human, to warrant taking the spontaneity out of the effort?

Clearly, it depends.

Many Ways Lead to the Source

There are as many ways to write as there are writers. Some choose the hard way, some the easier, but each chooses the way that seems right for them - at the time.

My own opinion whichever way is based on the evidence that those without a plan tend to have more trouble finishing what they start.

To me, it comes down to your definition of the word 'writer'. You could argue that anyone who writes is a writer. You might also contend that a planner - or a daydreamer - is not strictly a writer until they start writing. But that someone who finishes their book, whether they had a plan or template or not, eschews the definition, and becomes an author.

An author is one who makes their dream real.

If it's true that some literary writers are less 'ending' orientated, then perhaps being a full blown 'author' is irrelevant to them.

Let's face it, the romantic ideal of 'being a writer' is sometimes more appealing than actually doing the writing - and having something to show for yourself is perhaps too much of a frightening prospect for many would-be authors.

Am I being too harsh?

I know there are 'plan-less' authors who do finish their work.

Similarly, there are many genre writers who, despite meticulous planning, can't seem to get more than a third of the way through their novels.

So really, there's no definitive answer.

The Three Cs

I believe that writing and finishing a novel requires three important elements, all of which, conveniently, happen to begin with C!

1. Commitment

Whether you have a plan or not, you need to make a mental, even sometimes spiritual, commitment to actually finishing your stories.

Most anyone can write a few lines - or many lines - that have no immediate impact without context. It's the context of the whole that defines a work's relevance and enables the reader to make a decision about the author's art or talent.

(Perhaps this is why so many writers fear finishing their work - lest they be judged! Scary indeed.)

2. Compromise

I'm not talking about artistic compromise here. Of course you should do your best and what is right for the work.

But I have noticed over the years that many writers feel they can never live up to their own expectations - and consequently struggle, often to the point of blockage. This is really not doing you any good.

Sometimes you just need to let go and write - and be happy that you're doing your best. Turn off your inner critic - he's usually wrong anyway. Have faith - and get the first draft down without beating yourself up. I would contend your work is ALWAYS better than you think it is.

3. Combination

Writing is often fun and rewarding in its own right. But also it can be difficult and exhausting too.
Sometimes you need to find new ways of inspiring yourself to keep going.

Sometimes planning is a good idea - to help get those juices flowing. Sometimes being spontaneous is more inspiring. It depends on the project - and how far along you are with it.

I don't so much plan as use 'triggers' - especially in longer works.

Before I begin, I often write a list of dot points that suggest a structure that I can use as a template, if I want to. Then I let my literary mind take over and write whatever comes to mind.

This, to me, is the right mix - and while it doesn't restrict my creativity, it does allow me to focus my energies. I recommend it.

It's Your Call

The goal for any writer is to keep writing.

And whatever keeps you writing is the right answer - for you.

So don't spend precious writing time wondering what the best way forward might be. We all have revelations about certain aspects of writing from time to time. Some help us, some do not.

The important thing is to keep the words flowing onto the page.

And perhaps the best reason to have some sort of plan, whether it's written down or not, is so that you know when to finish a project - and move on.

Because only when you know you can finish projects, do you realize you've progressed from being a mere writer, to becoming a real live author!

Keep Writing!

Your Success is My Concern
The Easy Way to Write

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