How many great story ideas do you have scribbled in your journal or on the back of shopping lists, bouncing around in your head, filed in the “to do” folder? Lots, no doubt.
How many of them do you hope/think/know you’ll complete? Not so many, probably.
There are plenty of books and courses and coaches that deal with the dreaded Writer’s Block, and that’s great. We can certainly use those.
There’s also another time-tested, all-purpose, universal, life-based way to approach your projects, both creative and mundane. It’s a system that’s at work in the world all around us. Once you start seeing this natural pattern and learn to recognize where you are in the process, you can better approach your own creativity – be it in a relationship, on a writing project, at work, or just in life in general.
Our tendency is to want to stop time when life is working well for us. We want to freeze-frame and preserve the precious moments. And really, that’s what writers do, isn’t it? Particularly fiction writers. We select a moment in time, frame it in a certain perspective, and then present it to others for their entertainment, enrichment, and delectation.
But time does not stop for us.
More’s the pity.
It’s a river that just keeps on flowing.
So how can we accomplish our various writerly goals of preserving historically correct settings yet making them relevant? Of reaching into an unknown future yet projecting understandable and relatable aspects of story, setting, and character? Of eliciting strong emotions from our readers while also satisfying their curiosity and demand for meaning?
Yeah, it’s hard to do.
And that’s what makes what we do as writers so special.
My upcoming course on “Mastering Your Creative Process” [12 Lessons from April 17 – May 14] will cover the four stages of creativity, how to recognize where you are, what to take advantage of, what to avoid, and how to prepare for the next natural step.
Meanwhile, here are some other elements of story you can use in any genre or style. I call it the “Alphabet of Story”.
Writers use an alphabet to record and communicate our ideas. With letters and symbols we capture the images of our imagination, the whispering of our inner voices, and the desires of our hearts. Let’s look at a special alphabet for writers and media creators.
ACB = Art, Craft, Business
You’ve had a fantastic idea. You’ve gotten into the “Flow” and written some amazing scenes and dialogue. It’s like you’re just watching the movie that is your book and taking dictation. That’s the A=Art part. It’s just you and Inspiration.
To keep your Art part active, feed it greatness in art, music, literature, nature, spirituality, relationships, etc.
Okay, so you’ve come up with a great idea that will make a fabulous story. Now what?
Now comes the C=Craft part. Lots of people have great ideas. Not many people can craft them into something the rest of us want to read or see. The art is easy if you are a natural artist. The craft is hard, no matter what.
Different genres have different formats and styles. Writing a prose book is vastly different from writing a screenplay. The former does not require specific formatting, the latter demands it.
Marketability is a consideration as you apply the craft. A story for children is vastly different – or certainly should be – from a dark noir drama.
Craft is necessary to keep your audience engaged, to move the story and to create a rewarding, engaging experience for your readers and viewers.
After you’ve received the Artistic inspiration and Crafted it into a form digestible by an audience you reach the part that is most difficult for most of us. The Business: marketing, PR, publicity, looking for an agent, looking for a publisher, pitching to production companies, getting those “likes” and those Amazon 5-star reviews.
The act of marketing is an anathema to many writers, and rightly so. Though today’s technology allows so many millions more people the opportunity to express themselves, the financial rewards for most are small to non-existent. Even with a “real” publisher the writer is still expected to do most of the book promotion these days.
Pursuing the Business too often comes at the expense of time spent pursuing the Art and honing the Craft, so it is natural to feel a bit resentful of having to do it. But until something changes drastically, we all have to do it.
Seminars and books can be helpful here, as can bringing in someone to help you do the parts you can’t or don’t want to do. As in anything, investigate before you buy as there are thousands of people out there offering to “help” make your book a success. Few do.
EEEE = Entertain, Enlighten, Educate, Express
Sometimes you just want to tell a rollicking good story – Entertainment.
Sometimes you want more depth in your story to uplift your audience – Enlightenment.
Sometimes your goal is to make your audience aware of some situation – Educate.
Sometimes you write to express your own emotions, history, dreams, dilemmas, successes – Expression.
Most stories are a combination of the four E’s in different proportions. Finding the correct recipe is a challenge, made easier by knowing how all the parts can fit together to create the desired effect on your readers. A pie chart is an easy way to analyze stories.
Think about the Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave and a major contender, Gravity. 12 Years was probably 70% Education about slavery and the antebellum American South. 20% Enlightenment about the timeless evils of slavery, though because of the topic the Enlightenment and Education went rather hand-in-hand. 5% Expression as it carried the emotions of the man who had the actual experience. 5% Entertainment. But really, it wasn’t meant to entertain, was it? It was designed to Educate and Enlighten and did that very very well.
Gravity on the other hand was 90% Entertainment [how effective was that running heart-beat throughout the story as an aural clue to Sandra Bullock’s emotions?]. Maybe 5% Education. Not sure I could fly a Chinese spacecraft but I know a bit more about what not to do in space. 5% Enlightenment about the beauty of our planet and our relationship to it.
How about The Help? I’d say 40% Expression of the author’s personal experiences and emotions. 20% Education about the social situation and 20% Enlightenment as the previously downtrodden took power into their own hands and helped bring about change. 30% Entertainment.
What is your analysis of these three movies, two of them adaptations from books? What about the 2016 Oscar nominees?
Documentaries tend to be mostly Educational. Memoirs run the risk of being overly concentrated on personal Expression.
Apply this formula to your favourite stories and the stories you are creating and see if you are emphasizing what you hope to convey. Does your story have an effective balance of the 4-Es?
To really engage your audience, never forget the E of Entertainment.
SDS = Sympathy, Danger, Salvation
There are three elements that must be in every creation for it to be worth the name “story”. These three elements are also what you need to include in any query letter, pitch, back-cover copy, on-line synopsis, or verbal pitch to a potential reader, publisher, producer.
We must have Sympathy for or some identification with your characters. Or curiosity about them. Or perhaps the promise of validation of one of our own pet prejudices. It’s that “Who cares?” question, the “What’s the hook?” question. There must be something engaging at the very beginning for us to buy the ticket and go on this ride with you.
You must put the characters into some kind of Danger: physical or emotional, real or imagined, from within or without, etc. Without danger there is no conflict, without conflict there is no drama.
The three levels of the Dark Side are Personal (your own flaws and phobias), Impersonal (nature, time, gravity), and Suprapersonal (the big baddies, evil empires, powerful antagonists, demons, etc.)
Put your protagonist up against at least two of these three levels.
There must be some kind of Salvation. This doesn’t always mean a happy Hollywood ending, but it does mean a satisfactory ending. Salvation can be a new awareness, a gained skill, a repaired relationship, a goal accomplished, or in the case of tragedies, a vital lesson learned at great expense.
Be sure the quality of your SDS elements are compatible, complement each other, and provide the backbone for the character arc.
PAMELA JAYE SMITH is a mythologist, author, international consultant-speaker, and award-winning writer-producer-director. Her script The Cuban Circuit was a Winner at the Bahamas Intl. Film Festival 2015. She is the author of Romantic Comedies, The Power of the Dark Side, Inner Drives, Symbols.Images.Codes, Beyond the Hero’s Journey, and Show Me the Love. Pamela is the founder of MYTHWORKS and co-founder of Mythic Challenges and the Alpha Babe Academy. Clients and credits include Microsoft, Paramount, Disney, Universal, Romance Writers of America, Children’s Book Writers LA, RAI-TV Rome, National Film School of Denmark, LA and Marseille WebFests and many more. Pamela is a frequent jurist and panelist for international script and story contests and film festivals. She is the myth expert for the Special Features on Fox’s ICE AGE: Continental Drift movie.
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“I will give this book to couples I know who can learn from it and be inspired by it. The author’s words remind me what romantic stories are all about.”
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