Ten Quick Story Tips To Use Or Discard At Your Leisure
I’m off to THE YORK THAT IS NEW today for the big, bad NYCC (my sked is here), so this is a quick post, but I wanted to give you ten quick story tips to help you hard-charge your way through whatever the hell it is that you’re writing. Dig? Dug? Let’s do it.
1. Story is, as I am wont to remind, the destruction of the status quo. A story begins when the expected course of events deviates — it’s like a bone breaking. Compound fracture, crack. The inciting incident is that break. High school is high school until a new teacher shows up and changes everything. The magical fantasy kingdom is doing its thing until the king is murdered by a murderous murdercorn (aka a once-innocent unicorn that turned super shitty). This isn’t hard to see in stories that exist: the original Star Wars trilogy has the Empire serving as the status quo, and then Luke, Leia and the gang provide the match-tip to the Rebellion powderkeg and boom, status quo shattered. This is true for the inciting incident and also true as the story progresses — any time the story threatens to return to a “new normal” or some kind of status quo, it is your job to once again break that bone just as it heals. Plot is born of this.
2. Plot is also born of agitation. Agitation is best served as conflict between characters — aka, drama. The drama llama is a storyteller’s best friend. Love the drama llama. Ride the drama llama. Make love to the — wait, no. Sorry! *sprays bleach on your brain* Characters with competing agendas, desires, and emotions agitate one another simply by dint of pursuing (or denying) these agendas, desires and emotions. It’s like putting a bunch of spiders and centipedes and beetles in a jar and shaking it up — they fight and crawl and try to escape or eat each other. Story basically starts to write itself once you’ve got these fundamental elements, because the characters will forever push the narrative forward. This isn’t magical, though, and you’ll still need to control the characters. Otherwise they will be literally born and you will wake up surrounded by them. They will have knives. Okay, maybe it is magic. Whatever.
3. Secrets and lies power narrative. But don’t overdo it. We expect characters to keep secrets and to tell lies, but if it goes too far, it strains credibility. (Example of this is Lost, where as the seasons went on, it became totally unbelievable that they refused to share any piece of information with one another for dubious reasons.)
4. Transitions are one of the hardest parts of writing a story. Getting characters from Point A to Point B is mundane, boring stuff. You have two ways to deal with transitions: one, make them interesting, which is to say, make even transitional scenes heavy with consequence. Or two, just fucking skip ‘em. If it’s something you can sum up later in a sentence or three, uh, yeah, do that. Don’t waste our time. Leapfrogging the story along is a vital skill — we sometimes expect it’s like a gameboard where we have to literally move the piece from section to section but sometimes you just pick up the piece and move it to somewhere cooler because that’s more interesting. It’s all about value in narrative. Bits of your story that don’t do double-duty, meaning, they fail to serve more than one narrative purpose, nnnnyeaaaah, no, they gotta go. Some folks say to kill your darlings, and that’s sometimes true. But also kill your unitaskers. Transitional scenes are often unitaskers, and are best served left in a bag, in a ditch, covered in ants.
5. Give the story a sense of movement both physically and temporarily. Creating a vibrant setting and moving the characters through it — whether that means NEW YORK TO MUMBAI or it means THE KITCHEN TO THE CREEPY BASEMENT — gives a sense of dynamism and action. Time matters too, though. Don’t cram. Let the story play out. Feel free to insert days, weeks, months into the periods of transition. (I love The Force Awakens, but it and a lot of blockbusters suffer from a lack of temporal movement. Everything in that movie feels like the story takes place over its literal two-hour running time.) These elements of movement are fine left as gaps — readers don’t mind the gap. (Insert London Underground reference.) We fill in the gaps. It makes a story feel fuller, richer, longer. It is narrative umami.
6. A story isn’t just about setting up stakes, but also about reminding us of them throughout. Stakes are what can be won, lost or gambled in terms of the characters and the world. (Note: character stakes are nearly always more interesting than world stakes.) You set them up, but always come back to them. Remind us. Revisit them. And then at appropriate intervals, dial them up. Turn up the volume. Raise the stakes or complicate them. As I have noted before, the shift from A New Hope to Empire Strikes Back shows us stakes not raised but rather, complicated. The stakes aren’t raised because we enter the film with the Rebellion at an advantage — an advantage that can be lost, and we see it starting to winnow when the Empire attacks Hoth. But the real complication comes in when Luke’s relationship to the Empire — through Vader — changes dramatically. He thinks Vader is his foe, an adversary. But really, Vader is (gasp) his accountant uncle, Hank Skywalker. Or something? Been a while since I’ve seen that movie. Point is, the stakes are complicated by Luke learning that his greatest enemy is actually family.
7. Give all the big moments their due. Sometimes we just want to rush from one thing to another in a story — and above, I even encourage that a little by telling you to skip boring transitions. But also know that when big events occur, you need to lead into them slow. I loved the new Ghostbusters, but where it fell down for me was when it tried to ape the bigger plot beats of the original film, and in doing so, kind of hastily moved toward them and then past them almost on the assumption that, “Well, you’ve seen this before, you know there’s an old creepy place and a ghost lady and — look, let’s just get to the cool part.” COOL PARTS are made cooler by slowing our entry to them. Build in tension. Build in antici –
– pation. Study horror films for how this works best — even if you’re not writing a horror story, that same modeling works.
8. TANTRIC STORYTELLING. Nnngh. Yeah. NNNNNN. Okay, sorry. The admittedly-shortsighted view of Tantric Sex is about denial of orgasm, about maintaining the ZEXUAL VIBRASHUNS as long as possible while staving off the, um, the cookie-pop moment. Right? Stories can work this way, too. If you’re about to give a character (and by proxy the audience) what they want, take a look at if there is a way you can deny that moment. Restrict the bloodflow. Abstain from narrative storygasm. Though, sometimes the opposite is true — sometimes it’s about getting to the storygasm, and then making the characters realize that what they really wanted is way more complicated, or that what they actually got has unforeseen consequences. Like a baby. A sweet, squalling story baby. I think this metaphor has gone weird so I’m ejecting. Not ejaculating. EJECTING. God, you’re so gross.
9. Maximize complication. Make choices that lead to interesting consequences. Killing characters is easy and often leads to fewer consequences than if you kept them around and changed their situation — forcing them to remain as an agitating element. Though, killing off characters is fine, too. DREAD LORD CTHULHU KNOWS I’ve done my share of it, and will continue offing motherfuckers with zero mercy. Best reason to kill off a character (besides simplifying a busy cast) is when the death of that character creates powerful, tectonic ripples through the earthen mantle of the story you’re telling. You want to create earthquakes. That’s a good thing.
10. Storytelling is a game of imagining what your audience believes you’ll do next. And at least half the time, you’ve gotta do differently. You fake them out — you set up events to make it look like you’re going to jump left, and then you duck right. But the other half the time is giving them the satisfaction of being right. They think you’re going to kill Very Important Character, and then you make it seem like maybe you’re not going to but ha ha ha no, yeah, you are. VIC is dead, now. The audience was right, high-five to them. They didn’t want to be right, but they were, and they feel both satisfied about the result and tense about the build-up to that moment. Storytelling is a weird act of mitigating expectations — sometimes you lean away from them, sometimes you lean into them. You do both in a balance to make the tale satisfying.
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