Ten Thoughts On Story
Starting now, in no meaningful order:
Our Toddler Just Learned The Essence Of Storytelling
The other day, B-Dub (recently turned two) was noodling around the edge of our bed with his teddy bear. He was making Teddy flop about on his belly like some kind of fish, smashing his face into the bed and making eating sounds — chomp chomp chomp.
And B-Dub said to everyone and no one:
“Seeds. Eat seeds.”
I said, “Teddy is eating seeds?”
“Does Teddy like eating seeds?” I asked, because I didn’t know teddy bears liked eating seeds and I’m always looking out for those imaginary pro-tips I can use to placate the wild wolverine tornado that is the toddler mind (“LOOK STOP CRYING TEDDY IS NOW EATING SEEDS SEE — CHOMPY CHOMPY CHOMPY — IT’S ALL FINE NOW HA HA STOP CRYING PLEASE”).
And he went on smashing Teddy into this trail of imaginary seeds.
But then B-Dub said, “Oh no! No more seeds.” And then Teddy kept flumping about, but gone were the chomp chomp chomp noises.
B-Dub went on like this for 30 more seconds, until finally he said, “Buy more seeds. No seeds. Buy seeds.” And then Teddy was once more about to chow down on some non-existent seeds.
My initial thought was, “Oh, great, yeah, problem-solving.” But then my immediate second thought was, “Oh, holy shit, he just told a story.” I mean, okay, it was a fucking shitty story. No one’s gonna be giving him the Booker Prize for that one. (OR ARE THEY?) You know, I don’t care about this bear. I’m not invested in whether or not the bear gets his seeds. I don’t even know that I buy the authenticity of a bear eating seeds, so, c’mon.
But seriously, he discovered the core of storytelling: a character you like (Teddy) wants something (seeds) but can’t have them (oh shit, no seeds) and goes on a quest to answer that interrupted desire (gotta go buy some seeds).
This was the first time he complicated the life of his protagonist (in this case, Teddy).
B-Dub just told his first story.
The Three C’s
The three C’s in a story are, I think: complication, conflict, and consequence.
I’d make the (admittedly somewhat arbitrary) separation between complication and conflict by saying that complication is when a character’s “quest” is made more difficult, and the conflict happens more at the character level — so, complications tend to be external, conflicts tend to be internal (though can be manifested and often solved externally).
A complication is John McClane having to run across broken glass.
But the conflict is John McClane versus Hans Gruber and his terrorists. Another conflict is John McClane “versus” his own wife — you might argue that Holly moving to LA while John remains in NYC offers the complication of distance which puts their marriage in conflict.
In this way, complications and conflicts can crash into and spawn one another: A complication can lead to a conflict which can create more complications. The complication of distance leads to the McClanes in conflict which leads to the complication of John having to leave his comfort zone (on a plane, to LA, to a high-rise tower of executives) which amplifies the conflict between him and Holly — he hopes this conflict will resolve in a change of state between the two of them but then their relationship and reunion is again complicated by Gruber and his terrorists which puts McClane in conflict with them so he can save Holly, himself, and by proxy, their marriage, and a bevy of dogshit sequels.
(By the way, I choose Die Hard a lot in my examples because it’s an easy go-to example — almost everyone I know has seen it and it offers pretty great storytelling, so it works as a touchstone for most readers. And by the way, if you haven’t seen Die Hard, please let me strap you into this chair and superglue your eyelids to your hairline so that you MAY BE INDOCTRINATED YIPPIE KAY AY HYPNOFUCKER.)
The third C — consequence — describes the events that ensue from choices made in response to complications and conflicts. Consequences can be good or bad and can also spawn new conflicts and/or complications. Until the end of a story consequences are frequently both good and bad in equal measure. Some story endings see consequences lean strongly toward one or the other (win or fail) though again, you can do both — a Pyrrhic Victory where the victory is made at perhaps too high a cost. (I won’t lie: I love the Pyrrhic Victory ending.)
Not About “What Happens Next?”
Asking what happens next? is usually an invocation of external occurrence: “And then a fire breaks out. And then an army of rabid baboons appears. AND THEN ROBO-BEES AND SHIT BLIZZARDS AND EELVALANCHES.” That’s not to say you can’t have external events occur — any zombie story has that in the initial, “Oh, shit, look at all these fucking zombies.” That’s usually an inciting incident, though — a single external problem that complicates the lives of characters and throws them into conflict with one another.
The problem with external events is that they’re, well, external — they’re the equivalent of being handed a random card from the middle of the deck in a board game. “Go back three steps NO I DON’T KNOW WHY JUST DO IT.” In external events we get no character agency, no sense of ownership or entanglement, no function of character consequence.
More meaningful questions are: What do the characters do next? What is are the consequences? The goal isn’t to make something that’s event-driven.
I have in the past suggested that a plot is a the sequence of events as revealed to the audience, which remains true, to a point, but it might be better stated as (oh shit, complicated definition incoming): the actions of many characters hoping to gain what they desire and avoid what they fear and the complications and conflicts that result from those actions. A character-driven story rather than one driven by events.
The Little Story Is More Important Than The Bigger Story
At the end of the day, the big story is subservient to the little one. The Empire and Rebellion are just set dressing for the core conflict of Luke, Leia, and their father. Or the loyalty of Han. Or the illicit BDSM romance between Chewbacca and Chirpa, chieftain of the Ewoks. (Slashfic combo powers: CHIRPBACCA. Or CHIEF CHEWBY.)
Motive Is Everything
If you don’t understand why a character does something, you don’t understand the character.
The character doesn’t have to understand it. But you damn sure better.
Money? Love? Revenge? Approval of estranged father? High score on rip-off arcade game, Donkey Dong? Motivation is king. It moves the characters through the dangerous world you’ve put before them. It forces them to act when it’s easier not to. It gives them great agency.
Empathy, Not Sympathy (Or Sociopathy)
Never cross the line to sympathy. You’re not trying to preach of a character’s virtue. You’re not trying to convince us to like them. This isn’t church. This isn’t you knocking on doors asking if we’ve seen the Good Word and the Light of Steve the Accountant. It’s about understanding characters, not feeling for them. You should understand the hero. You should understand the villain. You should understand every character in between.
You’re not there to judge. No evil for evil’s sake. No good for goodness’ sake.
Everyone’s got a reason. Everyone’s the hero of their own tale.
Empathy. Don’t be distant. But don’t get too close, either.
I can smell convenience in a story like I can smell a hobo with a steamy load in his dungarees hiding in the rafters of my attic I KNOW YOU’RE THERE, JIMMY PATCHCOAT ahem sorry.
Convenience is when things are too easy. It’s when coincidence rules, when serendipity and sweet fortune conspire to grant the character a gift. Your story can demonstrate convenience, but convenience must come counterbalanced by equal (or worse) inconvenience — sure, the character can find the key to the padlock right there on the carpet but not before accidentally upending a coffee cup full of cockroaches onto her head.
Make things difficult. The path may seem easy — hey, look, there’s the finish line! so close! — but every step is fraught with the broken glass and caltrops of your choosing.
Care On The First Page
The goal and the challenge: how to make someone care from the very first page about a character and their predicament? (First, you gotta have a character and a predicament, one supposes: I’ve read stories where the first page is all setting or exposition, and that makes me just clench up and whizz a stream of napalm in my man-diapers.)
But seriously, how? How do you do it?
You’ve gotta give us something to hang our hats on. Some trait, some moment of history, some way to draw a line between the reader and the character. And then you’ve gotta instantly thrust this character that we care about into conflict — it’s like fishing. The character is the bait. The conflict is the hook. The reader swims along — gobblechomp — and then you yank back on the rod (get your mind out of the gutter, weirdo) and you’ve got them.
The hell of it is, you don’t have long.
One page. Maaaaybe on the strength of writing or worldbuilding, one chapter.
Plot Is Line, Story Is Architecture
Plot and story are not the same.
The story is the apple. The plot is the arrow through it.
The story is the body. The plot is the skeleton in the meat.
The story is a whole building full of unfollowed hallways and unopened doors and secret rooms and people we only glimpse but never know, and the plot is the elevator up through that architecture, one floor after the next.
Imagine Your Audience Is Right In Front Of You
Tell a story to people. Real people. Standing in front of you.
It can be a story about anything. The hook-hand man. A dream you had. The time you had sex — sorry, “made love” — to that person off Craigslist who dressed like a bighorn sheep during the act. Hell, maybe it’s a comedy routine. Or even a single joke.
Tell the tale to one group, then the next, then the next.
See how they react. See where you might lose them.
Practice the telling. Sharpen it. Lose needless details. Amp up those parts to which they respond strongly. Now take all of that and see how it applies to a day’s writing — from a single sentence all the way to the whole script or game or novel. Imagine the reader there in front of you, reading. Imagine when they’ll put it down. Look for those places where they’ll be all, nah fuck it I got a frozen burrito with my name on it no I mean literally I wrote my name on it in Sharpie. Look for the parts where they’re pumping their fists and clenching their rosebuds and saying fuck yeah this is what I’m talking about, I can eat that stupid fucking burrito later.
Picture them right there.
And tell the story to them as if you might lose them at any moment.