Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Number Of Stories: Infinite

Girl meets boy. Cop catches killer. Knight defeats dragon.

There may only be a limited number of types of story, but each is made up of a series of connected goals.

In order to get from A to Z, you first have to get from A to B. Then from B to C. How the character reaches each goal requires a choice. When you string enough choices together not only do you end up with a story, but you also create a pattern to that narrative.

In order to get the most out of this process, though, you need to be aware of what options are available to the character at each stage.

The most obvious and familiar ways to deal with a problem, both from real life and from other works of fiction, are going to pop into your head first. But if you dig a bit deeper, you will find a variety of alternatives.

That doesn’t mean you should choose one bizarre event after another—unless that’s the kind of story you want to write—but putting a character on a set path and then seeing them through from one end to the other makes it feel predictable.

It’s easy as a writer to reduce the process to the final decision. You know what he’s going to end up doing so why not cut to the chase? But it’s seeing the character make the choice that’s the interesting part for the reader. Why did he have to make the decision? What were the options? How did it go over? What were the consequences? These are the things that turn a predictable journey into a story.

Here’s an example of what I mean. Tim is a journalist and he’s going to get sent to Glasgow to cover a story. The scene I write to show this is in Tim’s editor’s office where the editor tells him his assignment and sends him off.

That could be an okay scene, showing us where Tim works, some banter between boss and employee, some set up as to what the story is going to be about, and so on.

But ultimately the reader is told what is going to happen and then it happens. I want you on a plane to Glasgow tonight... and then he’s on a plane.

There’s no room for making choices here. However, if I know that I want my character to go to Glasgow in this story, then what if his editor sits him down and tells him he wants him on the first plane to Dublin?

Now he has to think of a way to get himself off that story and onto the one he’s interested in. He could ask the editor nicely, he could trick an ambitious rival into demanding the Dublin gig, he could lie, he could beg, or whatever.

You have the character’s personality (what he’s capable of) and you have all the ways you can think of to get him on that plane.  Every time he makes a move, an array of new moves and counter-moves come into play.

It’s like the road splitting into ten paths, choosing one, and then that road splitting into ten branches and so on. Only, instead of ten paths, you actually have however many you can imagine your character considering.

Even though he’s still just going from A to B, there isn’t just one route to take. That’s what creates the feeling of it being his story, even though what he’s doing isn’t new or unusual. But it’s important to show the choices being made, not just their outcome.
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14 comments:

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Like Choose Your Own Adventure - create many different paths, not just the obvious.

Karen Jones Gowen said...

It always confuses me to hear a writer talk about stories and characters like they are finite. As in "I don't want anyone to steal my story/character/plotline etc." Seeing as how the same plots have been used over and over throughout the history of storytelling.

Al Diaz said...

See beyond the obvious. I'm going to write that down with BIG letters and keep it visible.

mooderino said...

@Alex - there are always going to be more than one way to skin a cat.

@Karen - even the simplest story can be told an infinite number of ways.

@Al Diaz - I should be selling t-shirts.

Michael Offutt, S.F.A. said...

Okay you've convinced me. My next project shall be to rewrite Twilight so I can make a gazillion dollars. It won't be obvious that I'm rewriting Twilight though cause I'm going to change the names to Anastasia and Christian Grey.

mooderino said...

@Michael - Genius!

Jagoda said...

Yes, yes, yes--give characters choices, set them up with conficts (like in your example with the editor) to overcome to achieve their desires, and create an interesting path--right on.
Jagoda

Lynda R Young said...

"it’s seeing the character make the choice that’s the interesting part for the reader." That's a good way to put it.

mooderino said...

@Jagoda - I think the interesting path is what we look for in stories.

@Lynda - that's also why it's more fun when plans go wrong and characters have to think on the fly.

Elise Fallson said...

You should do writers workshops and/or seminars. Or maybe you already do? Anyway, yes to all the above. I like characters that finally take some chances after being somewhat predictable. Throw me a curve ball once in a while. (:

mooderino said...

@Elise - I should probably work on finishing my own writing first. I'm so easily distracted.

Mary Gottschalk said...

A good post.

This described exactly the challenge I faced in my first draft of my novel ... I knew how I where it and started and where I wanted it to end, and got there expeditiously. What was missing was tension and character development. I had a lot more fun with the second draft than with the first, and I presume my readers will appreciate the additions!

Patricia Lynne said...

Great post and advice.

runningsurvivor said...

Great post...and tips...Following you via the challenge...follow back if you like

Shannon at I Survived and Now I Run

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