Monday, 3 November 2014

What is a Story?

When I first started my research degree in story theory, the thing that surprised me most was that there is no single definition for the term 'story'. At least, not one that all the authorities agree, and certainly not one which would cover all the examples that you and I would intuitively agree are 'stories'. 2,300 years since Aristotle and even the dictionary isn't right. 

Of course, like every other narratologist, I have come up with my own definition, but for this blog post, I won't be trying to sell you that. I thought I would use this space to capture the top lines that most story boffins DO agree. The common elements that comprise the mainstream and which are useful to know if you are a writer of fiction. Please note the scope I'm setting. I'm not trying to include 'the story of medicine' or a poem or a recipe or an argument or the story of 'last summer' or Japanese Kishotenketsu conflict free narratives, or
all the myriad other things that may or may not be stories. I'm talking about a definition that will help an aspiring writer do good things for their story telling by understanding where the centre of the mainstream flows. 

So, let's look at the simple contents of a generally 'good' story: 

1) The vast majority of fine stories feature a protagonist trying to achieve a goal. His/her world is thrown out of balance, and this has given the protagonist clear aims. By the end of the story we know whether the protagonist achieved his or her aims or not. This is usually the main plot; the spine of the story. Everything in a story is linked to this spine and contributes to it.  

2) To make the protagonist's journey interesting, s/he is faced by obstacles that must be overcome in order to achieve this aim or aims. By 'obstacles' I don't simply mean a 'bad guy', I mean any forces of antagonism that directly oppose the protagonist's progress towards those aims. Antagonistic forces basically come in four flavours: internal (mental self-doubt, delusion, cowardice...); relationship (conflict with other people); institutional (conflict with, for example, police, hospitals, schools, councils, bookmakers...); and external (conflict with uncontrollable factors, such as the weather, acts of God, the actions of random strangers...). For more on antagonism see my blog Conflict and the Word Count.  

Also note that the forces of antagonism are fundamental to the power of your story. The good guys can only be as impressive as the forces they have to overcome, so building strong, believable, clever, powerful antagonism is a very important part of a fine story. It should appear absolutely impossible that the protagonist can find a way to win. Often writers are lovely people; gentle pacifists who greatly empower their good guys and unconsciously limit their baddies from the get-go, because they love their hero and hate their bad guy. See my blog post on Antagonism here.  

Now, I could stop here. Strictly speaking, that is it. Those are the two points that define the substance of a story. Protagonist with a clear aim; antagonism standing firmly in his way; an irresistible force firmly set in direct conflict with an immovable object.

However, let's add a few more points that raise a basic 'story' to a 'much better' story. 

3) Generally, a fine story will depict the protagonist changing and learning and growing across the course of his or her story experiences. By the end of the story, the protagonist's 'life values' would have significantly changed - for better or for worse - when compared to their starting position. The poor village boy decides to take on the dragon that terrorises the community. He slays the dragon, and ends up with a princess, a castle and a shed load of money. 

This is known as character growth, and characterises most fine stories. Better still, the very finest stories have a protagonist who learns a lesson about morality (see 4, below) and applies this moral learning to overcome the antagonistic forces and thereby achieve the character growth. More on Character Growth here

4) A good story is usually a moral argument. The story broadly addresses the questions: how should a person lead their life? And how should a person treat others? The moral issue provides the theme of the story, and the 'bad guy', if there is one, is often not simply out-and-out evil. He is adopting an understandable (but self-centred, misguided or disagreeable) stance on the moral issue. In Juno, for example, the moral issue is 'teenage pregnancy'. The eponymous teenage protagonist must take responsibility for her pregnancy; the conflict comes from the moral position adopted by the other characters, and the tension comes from the decisions Juno has no choice but to make. Often the protagonist, in their desperation to find answers, becomes immoral themselves. For more on this, see my blog post on Morality in Stories

5) Last, but by no means least, the finest stories are delivered in subtext. What is written by the author is a minimalist set of cues and triggers that cause the whole story to be imagined in the mind of the receiver of that story. The gaps between the minimalist cues and the imagined story generated in mind are the solid gold of brilliant story telling. It's the subtext that provides the resonance with a human mind and gives a story the implicit grip and engagement that fascinates. More on my favourite topic of Subtext can be found here

In evolutionary terms, in the real world, it is gaps in our knowledge that ring alarm bells and make us emotional. A knowledge gap is a sign of risk or opportunity and arouses us until the knowledge gap is filled. Gaps in stories trigger these same emotions, and this is where the absolute substance of story power resides. A knowledge gap in your writing generates subtext for your reader. Read my book Story Theory for more on these deep waters!

What does this mean to you?

And that's it! Check in with these basics in your own writing. It's not rocket science, and there's a lot to be said for keeping it simple. If you keep the protagonist and his aims to the fore, ensure everything is relevant to these aims; and set them head on against conflicts provided by the forces of antagonism, then show us how the protagonist overcomes the forces of antagonism and how s/he grows in achieving those aims by the end, you will probably have a fine story in front of you.

Try this with your story: Fill in the bits between the chevrons: 

My story is about <name of protagonist>. His/her goal is to <insert aims here>. However, s/he is blocked in achieving these goals by <insert forces of antagonism here>. Only one of the protagonist or forces of antagonism can win; their aims are mutually exclusive. At climax, <insert key conflict event> happens, leading to <resolution for protagonist happy or tragic ending>, depicting a significant <positive or negative> change in life values and moral understanding for the protagonist.

These are the basics. If you cannot easily fill in the gaps, it is more than likely that your story has problems you need to solve before heading into first draft. A common example would be if you aren't sure who your protagonist is. In this case, you don't know whose story you are telling and you aren't ready to write it. 

For more on all of this, see my book The Story Book; available the world over on Kindle, published in hard copy in the UK and in Chinese shortly in China!  

Best of luck!

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

The Rise of the Arrogant Artist

Have you noticed that a lot of the most successful people seem self-centred? A little arrogant, perhaps? Obnoxious, even. Is there something we humble, peaceful, generous, gentle arty types can learn from this..?

When I meet successful writers, they often seem to have an unshakeable belief that they are right. 'Here's my art,' they say. 'That's what you're getting, World, and I couldn't care less what you think about it.'

That's not true, of course. The artist cares deeply about what people think, and often they are, underneath it all, humble, peaceful people like the rest of us. However, they appear to have an arrogance because their art is pushed out by a passionate, blinkered drive that makes it the way it is and, for that artist, the product cannot possibly be any other way. It's not arrogance, it's ownership. It's taking responsibility. And that's exactly the way it should be. For art to satisfy, it must first satisfy the vision and inspiration of the artist. The seeds of creativity that drove the artist to devote blood, sweat, tears and years must be realised with integrity for there to be any point in doing it. 

If you think about it, once the artwork is available to appreciate, the artist shouldn't really have any say in what people think. It is what it is. The wise and productive artist puts it out there - publish and be damned! - gives himself or herself a quiet hug for keeping that integrity and for pleasing themselves with it, then moves on to the next one. 'Fire and forget' is my motto. If your artwork happens to resonate with a proportion of the population, great! You will make some money. If it doesn't, you've satisfied your soul... and best of luck with the next one. At least you didn't bend your soul out of shape simply to bow to the opinions of others. 

Success is not measured in money. It's measured in fulfilment. And what you want... is both. 

So what's the point in learning stuff about your art if an artist is simply going to satisfy their heart? 

Good question. The problem with the above is that most writers are not able to bring their story to life in a way that satisfies their inspiration. Once it's done and they read it back, it doesn't quite deliver what they felt inside. And that is really frustrating. So they rewrite. Then re-read. And it kinda works. So they rewrite. And re-read. And rewriting is fine. Essential. Unavoidable. But it isn't a very good 'method' for problem solving. Three or four rewrites and a six months later you've forgotten what the hell gave the thing a beating heart in the first place, and it starts to go cold and stale and become really hard work. Until it dies on a shelf as you put it down to experience and move on to something new and exciting. 

When a writer asks me to read their story and tell them what I think, I refuse. I won't do it. I ask them what they think, because that's what's important. It must stay in their ownership. I get them to pitch a short version of the story. I ask them questions about the characters and motivations and, bit by bit, I try to connect with that original inspiration. I then talk to them about specific areas of story power and story theory that will help them understand what is bugging them, understand how that might be addressed and then stay on the spine of their inspiration. And that can be learned. Like a painter can understand the limits and potential of different paper, brushes, colours and media, and a composer can learn the limits of orchestral instruments, ranges and technology, so a writer can learn where the power of story lies and can use that knowledge to maximise the power of their own story and to remain faithful to the inspiration across the long haul of writing it down. 

And you mustn't be scared to put it out there! So many of my clients are really just after reassurance. They want to rewrite forever rather than face the judgement that surely follows completion. Terrifying. Rejection... terrifying. Best just never finish, right...?! 

If you want success (whatever success means to you) you MUST have the courage of your artistic convictions. There's only one person who can tell your story and that is YOU. There's only one person who can decide if your story is right or not and that is YOU. 

William Faulkner once said: 'The good artist believes that nobody is good enough to give him advice. He has supreme vanity.' 

That is true, BUT... a good artist has mastered his craft, and therefore doesn't need to turn to others to deliver his inspiration as he hoped and intended. 

So be arrogant. Be superior. You ARE the God of your story, and you mustn't be ashamed of that. Be the God. This is your art and you must guard its integrity because You Know Best. In fact, ONLY you know the definitive truth of your story, so it's not arrogance, it's standing up for what you believe in. Learn the craft of story, but then be absolute in how you apply that knowledge to your work. You will be respected for that attitude, and finding respect will take you closer to 'success' than just about anything else. 

I quite like what I said earlier: Success is not measured in money. It's measured in fulfilment. And what you want... is both. And 'both' means: Pure art, mixed beautifully with knowledge of how that art works.

Monday, 24 February 2014

Have I Got News For You...

I am very excited to announce the birth of my new book, entitled Story Theory: the psychological and linguistic foundations to how stories work. It is published NOW. On Amazon in the US Here. And on Amazon in the UK here. It got it's first 5 star review within 24 hours, I'm pleased and relieved to say, and I didn't write the review and I don't know the person who did!

That decidedly un-snappy title is deliberate, because I want to set your expectations. This book is effectively my PhD thesis for the layman. For those with an interest in story theory and the academic side, this is solid gold. You'll be luxuriating in the sheer geeky nerdiness of it all for months. For those who want practical advice for writers.... hmmm. Not so much. You will only want the second half of the book, as this  provides some unique story understanding to take into your own work. 

Story Theory is original thinking and 'new knowledge' that you will not find anywhere else. However, this is not a practical 'how to' book... 

Here's what Stewart Ferris, the MD of the publishing company that published some of my earlier books, has to say about it: 

“An intelligent and thought-provoking book that shows not only where stories come from, but how to harness the power of story, the techniques writers can use to enhance that power, and how stories are an integral part of what makes us human.”

Which is about right, but make no mistake - it's an academic read. I'm telling you this, because I don't want to sell it to anyone who wouldn't enjoy it. Go directly to The Story Book for more practical information. 

I hope you love it. Let me know! 


Saturday, 25 January 2014

Morality in Stories

When we were young, the moral message in a story was something we discovered, and when we did, it gave us pride in our ability to comprehend. The Three Little Pigs taught us to do a proper job or suffer for our laziness. Little Red Riding Hood taught us not to talk to strangers and The Ugly Duckling taught us not to judge a book by its cover. We were pleased with ourselves when we identified and understood the unspoken lesson delivered in the story’s subtext and we even recognised the quality of the story because that moral message was delivered but not stated. 

As we mature, the complexity of the stories we absorb often hides their underlying morality, and leads us to think that morality is no longer a factor in a ‘grown-up’ story. I’m here to tell you that nothing could be further from the truth. ALL the very finest and most highly rated stories have a moral foundation that underpins the characters, their behaviours, the conflicts and events of your story. Morality provides the cohesion – the theme – that brings a unity to your story. The better your story is bound to a cohesive morality, the higher your story will be regarded by its readership.

What is morality? Why is it important? 
Put simply, morality is the subjective definition of good and bad behaviour. It defines how a person should lead their life, as enshrined in the philosophies, ideologies and the laws of civil society. More importantly, our minds and personal development are concerned with how to thrive and succeed in society (i.e., over and above our instinctive responses), and stories that have a moral basis and deliver life lessons through the experiences of the characters attract us more than any other. 

Given that the laws that guide a society are defined by people and asserted by people over other people, stories have become an important tool of teaching and learning lessons about how to behave. Religions, for example, have provided the most influential philosophies that guide societies in the last few thousand years, and look how they do it: All religions are personalised around characters and presented as stories. Stories that deliver lessons about how to live our lives, through characters facing life problems and learning lessons about how to deal with them, attract us greatly. 

For story purposes morality is always concerned with how a person treats other people. Morality defines those behaviours that would be generally accepted by most rational people to be ‘good’ or ‘bad’ behaviours. ‘Good’ behaviour is socially positive and ‘bad’ (immoral) behaviour will harm another person. How do we know our story has a 'bad guy'? Because he compromises the accepted norms of the morality we have been taught since we were babies. How do we know we have a 'good guy'? Because he upholds and asserts the accepted norms of the morality we have been taught since we were babies. A bad guy is selfish, and will harm others to serve his own selfish needs. A good guy is acting for the wider interests of the society. 

Whilst there is a clear morality at the heart of the children’s stories listed above, and at the heart of a most stories based around a pure battle between the good guys asserting human values and the evil bad guys behaving selfishly (all the superheroes, every police detective, James Bond, Harry Potter...), the finer stories have even more basis in morality, but with lots more subtlety. Shawshank Redemption: the moral issues surrounding asserting the systems of justice - what happens when the bad guys are running the justice system and the good guy is in prison? Sunset Boulevard: the moral issue is how to treat someone's mental delusion: do you collude with her to prevent a possibly tragic reaction to pulling away the delusional facade? Or do you force her to face reality and deal with the fallout? Notice how each character adopts a moral stance towards the protagonist. There's no bad guy in Sunset Boulevard, just different opinions and moral positions that create the conflict and build to the climax when one stance is 'selected' and asserted into the delusional person's life. 

What we really like, in the course of the 'moral argument' that defines a story is when the good guy has to be immoral himself in order to overcome the bad guy. What do I mean by that? Let’s take a look at my usual go-to example, Back to the Future. Surely, there is no meaningful morality underpinning a teenage, sci-fi, action adventure like this, is there? Well, apart from the Good v. Evil basics (the selfish bully Biff gets defeated, subdued and humiliated whilst the society-positive George gets a princess and a castle and personal fulfilment) the power of the story resides along the lines of Edmund Burke’s much-quoted warning: "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” 
       All the time that George weakly defers to the bully Biff, ‘good’ loses out to ‘evil’. Once George has learned his life lesson and has the moral courage of his convictions, ‘good’ triumphs over ‘evil’, society wins out and the world returns into harmony. 

Note carefully that  George’s behaviour in failing to stand up for what is right is essentially immoral behaviour: His weakness is hurting himself and his future son, wife, family and ultimately the entire society (as is confirmed when Biff gets total control in the sequel...). This is often a characteristic of a fine story. The good guy is behaving immorally and is hurting good people, and the story is about him learning the moral lesson; changing and growing as a result, and thereby defeating life’s evil. Biff is more of a vehicle for George's transition than a massive story factor himself. In the Shawshank Redemption, Andy Dufresne has to break the law in order to assert the correct moral values of a justice system. 

Conversely, in great stories, the bad guy might be obviously immoral, but his actions and moral stance should at least be understandable, not simply out-and-out evil.  In Shawshank, there would be many people in society who are perfectly supportive of Warden Norton and his brutal and uncompromising approach to managing hardened criminals. In Sunset Boulevard, Norma Desmond is mentally ill and deluded, not 'bad'. In Back to the Future. Lorraine says she wants a ‘strong man’. Biff is as strong as they get, and is happy to demonstrate his strength, dominate and take charge. This is understandable behaviour, even though he goes too far.

Many fine stories have their morality hidden behind other more dominant themes, such as a journey or action sequences, but it will always be there. One of the clearest examples of a story with an architecture based entirely on its morality is Juno. The moral theme running through every scene, is ‘teenage pregnancy’. If you think about this story, every character provides a different viewpoint on the moral issues surrounding teenage pregnancy. Abortion, parental responsibility, under-age sex, morning-after pills, adoption, father’s responsibilities, babies-as-commodities and so on. The conflicts in Juno don't come from any bad guy. There isn't a bad guy. They come from the different stance each character adopts on the moral issue of teenage pregnancy, and Juno is there in the middle having to make a decision – a life-changing, difficult and grown-up decision - in her young judgement. We learn a lot of life lessons from this story, and the moral-as-theme is not only central and very evident, but also a terrific example of how you can and should use morality in defining the conflicts and characters of your story. 

And, once again, it is worth noting that our hero, Juno, not only behaves immorally herself (in having underage sex she hurts herself and those around her) but whatever decision she makes for herself and her baby will be in conflict with one or another of the various characters in the story. Juno may not be everyone’s favourite film (largely because of the unrealistic dialogue) but it is a beautifully crafted story with great lessons for writers in how to build a story around a moral theme. 

So where is the morality in your story? Does that morality imbue every sequence? Is every character involved in the moral argument your story presents? Are your conflicts built fundamentally around the differing moral positions? Does your protagonist  become immoral (i.e., hurt themselves or others) in the actions they take to achieve their aims? 

These things characterise the most highly rated stories.