Story Theory: An Intro
By Josh Powlison
You can do this!
None of this is beyond you. You don't need to have some innate ability to create great stories that, if you lack, you're doomed to create par or sub-par stories; it can all be learned.
If it's in there at all, get out of your head that story development and storytelling can't be learned. People have innate talent for it, but whether or not you do, you can reach people with your own incredible stories. You have it in you.
So if you came here because you think you're not good enough, throw that thought away right now. I'm teaching this stuff because I know you are good enough. If I didn't think you- yes, you- were good enough, I wouldn't bother posting it online for you. But you are. So come on, and let's go!
But keep in mind!- you're not going to be perfect starting off. That's fine! You're gonna grow. You wouldn't expect anyone to play a song perfectly after their first guitar lesson; don't expect yourself to write flawlessly after learning an idea. It takes practice, and practice takes time, but that time will help you get up to your ideal skill level.
Story development and storytelling require a series of skills, not one big skill: brainstorming, making connections, organization, seeing potential, and more. Don't worry if you feel like you come up short in one area- that's normal, and we all have plenty of space to grow! Likely you're already great at a few of the skills you need to create great stories.
Story development and storytelling are often treated as mysterious arts. But just like music, chemistry, gymnastics, cup stacking, dancing, math- stories have a logic to them. You can learn this logic to create better stories faster.
My test for all story theory is that it has to be useful and always hold true. This is the test every theory I teach goes through. If I find something lacking or in error, I tweak it. If something's useless, I don't bother teaching it. We'll go through these theories and discuss what they are, how they work, and what their application is. I'll try to provide ample examples along the way too.
You will see me make some assumptions and act on those assumptions. Follow along with the assumptions, as they're generally foundational to creating great stories. Separate my assumptions from whatever beliefs you have about story right now if you need to, but stay open- even if you disagree with where I'm coming from, I think you'll like where we end up going.
So with all that, let's get on it!
Story is not storytelling
A story begins in your mind. To tell it you need to move it from your mind out to your voice. It is a story when it is in your mind, and continues to be all along the process.
But you might not move that story out to your voice. You might move it out to a novel. You might move it out to a movie. But in each case the story traveled to you telling it; it doesn't only exist in you telling it.
A book is not a story. A graphic novel is not a story. A movie is not a story. Books, graphic novels, and movies tell stories.
Though when we say storytelling we usually think of verbally telling a story, every medium is a form of storytelling, and the story exists outside of its medium (outside of its telling). You could say that the story is the soul and the medium the body.
This separation matters as you develop your story.
You are not developing a book. You are not developing a movie. You are not developing a song. You are developing a story. Later you will work on telling it.
Knowing this lets us recognize story development and storytelling as two different skills and develop these skills separately. It also allows you to develop your story first and later focus on telling it.
Once you learn story development, you can create great stories that can be told in any medium. Once you learn storytelling, you can tell those stories effectively by the medium you choose, in the medium you choose.
What is a story?
Write on a piece of paper or below "I told a story."
(It may sound stupid, but trust me)
...have you done it yet?
Okay! I'll assume you did!
Congratulations! You just told a story!
Have you ever told your friends what's going on with you? Talked about a sports team or TV show? Written a text about your day? You've told many stories throughout your life, and are capable of telling many more! Which is why you're here.
So, what exactly is a story? If you look online, you'll find tons of definitions. They may seem similar, but they don't generally have much practical application, or you'll find holes that keep them from consistently working. The definition below will probably sound empty and meaningless at first, but it's actually extremely powerful- it naturally leads to the three-act structure (a popular form of formatting story), story outlines (an entertainment industry standard practice), understanding how characters and story relate to each other, and more! I discover more power to this definition quite often, which is cool.
So, a story is (drum roll, please):
Story: something that happens; an event
Examples of stories are "Bob falls in love with Susie", "A superhero saves the world", "Dave learns how to trust again", and "an earthquake".
But wait! Stories have length, right? Those sentences above don't count! You're right, and these statements do too! We're just getting an overview of everything. Each of the events could take place over days, years, or at the very least minutes. But even if they didn't have length, they still fit the bill.
That doesn't mean that they're all meaningful stories or that they'll be good stories- but how can we define good stories if we don't have a starting definition for story anyway?
So what is a "good" story? Well, that's somewhat subjective. Generally stories that impact us personally we consider "good", although different people have different measurements. Stating whether or not a story is "good" might be tricky from an objective standpoint, but you can discuss whether a story is "well organized", "concise", and "clear" from more objective standpoints. But that's jumping a bit ahead.
Most writers start with a myriad of great ideas and try to funnel it all into one cohesive concept before spreading it all out again into a great story. Instead, start with one cohesive concept- in the form of a sentence- and spread it all out into a great story! You lose the first long, difficult step, and get clarity!
Don't try to funnel your ideas into one sentence- if you're already developing something, take a meaningful happening from that and develop it out. Focus will help you move forward.
Anyway, the definition is really schnazzy, because we can just follow the definition to its natural conclusions and learn all sorts of stuff!
A story is something that happens. Fact: anything that happens somehow begins, somehow ends, and somehow moves from beginning to end.
|Something that happens|
So if it begins, continues, and ends somehow- hey, that sounds like the Three Act Structure!
|Act 1||Act 2||Act 3|
Different people slice up the Three Act Structure in different ways, but this still lines up pretty neatly!
Something started the story moving- an inciting incident, catalyst, whatever you want to call it- and then we had rising action, conflicts, etc, whatever you want to call the creme in the middle- and then we have the climax, the conclusion, the falling action, whatever you want to call the third act.
That thing that kicked off the main happening- that's a happening too, right? So don't we get something like this if we break things down further:
|Something that happens|
And can't we keep breaking things down?
Absolutely! And as we keep going we get... a story outline! An industry-standard practice for developing stories!
|Act 1||Act 2||Act 3|
All just from deciding that a story is something that happens.
Note that these different pieces don't take up a set percentage of the time. The first sub-happening, second sub-happening, and third sub-happening don't take up 33% of the story time each- the first could be 20%, the second 70%, and the last 10%; the first could be 50%, the second 10%, and the last 40%; it varies!
I like to use terms for the different levels. Here's my terminology:
|(and so on)|
This lets you communicate more clearly on what you're talking about, and gives a more consistent terminology to the whole thing.
Now, keep in mind, many works tell multiple stories. If you don't believe me, Google "subplot". So you won't be able to take just one story from most works.
How do we use this info?
Start with one sentence for your overall story.
Then break it down!
"But all of those sentences above... they don't sound that meaningful."
You're right!- but that's where creativity and the ability to see potential come in.
Let me share with you an example that I think will help. Ignore your beliefs about this quote, and just consider what I share about it:
"In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters." -Genesis 1:1-2 (WEB)
In this passage, God (again, if you don't believe in God, just ignore that for now- there's a valuable point here) is hovering over the surface of the waters- of the beginnings of Planet Earth that look like nothing. Imagine a "formless and empty" Earth- what does that even look like?! But here's what God saw- He saw potential in the formless and empty. That's your job too!
If you see potential in others, or are a visionary person, you have this skill inside of you already. Brainstorming helps you get that first sentence, but the ability to see what others don't will get you the breakdown and lead you into your Three Act Structure and Outline.
That said, we need something with potential to draw more potential from! So what has more potential? Well- you gotta determine what you want more potential for!
Do you want more potential for comedy? For tear-jerker moments? For action and big fights? For travel? For sharing your beliefs about the world? This will lead you into your one sentence.
Generally, I look for "meaningful" statements- but really what I mean is what's "meaningful" to me. Which is normally something that is demonstrative of a moral, exposes a human need, and involves characters growing into better people. You have to determine what's meaningful for you.
Since we'll likely have different ideas of what's meaningful, my approach may not work for you. But here's how I create a meaningful one-sentence:
I start with a flaw that I see in peoples' thinking or mindsets that I wish people didn't have- something that hurts people. I have a character start the story with that flaw, then have a change of mindset through the story. That change of mindset allows them to take down the villain (or solve the problem, whatever it may be). The climax becomes that moment that shows how much they've grown and developed.
So I could go "Vulnerability is important for connection. I wish people were more vulnerable so they wouldn't feel so lonely." (Note that what I'm concerned about in others, is usually a current struggle in myself)
So I make a fill-in-the-blank statement, "_______ becomes vulnerable." I can always add more details- "_______ becomes vulnerable with their friends", "_______ becomes vulnerable with their family" or some variation.
For example, for my one-act play "Jenna Likes Herself", I started with the concern of people not liking themselves. So then I made my one sentence "Jenna learns to like herself." Now, I didn't prep for that story as much as I should have, but that still allowed me to break down the story from there:
|Jenna learns to like herself.|
|Jenna realizes she doesn't like herself.||Jenna tries to figure out ways to like herself.||Jenna starts to like herself.|
You might take a different approach, depending on your story's goal. But that one sentence and what you do with it set the tone for your entire story.
I do want to note: sometime while breaking things down, normally a few levels down, breaking the pieces down into three just doesn't feel as convenient. In that case, I break them down however I like. The three has been really helpful for starting, but these aren't rules, they're theories to help you make better stories. I recommend following them, but don't be afraid to color outside of the lines and see what works for you.
We often think of characters as people. Here's where I divert again, and I'll explain why:
Characters: things in a story
Here's why this helps me: people aren't the only things developing in your story. Environments, cultures, systems, mindsets, objects all "develop" in your story, shifting and being impacted by the world around them. If you only think of people developing- as we usually do when referring to "character development"- you'll miss all sorts of opportunities and your story won't be as believable. But we'll be getting into believability more later.
Characters are intrinsic to stories because something made the happening happen. Something was also impacted by the happening.
Here's how a story progresses:
A character makes an event → A character reacts to it, and their reaction is a new event → A character reacts to it, and their reaction is a new event → A character reacts to it, and their reaction is a new event → A character reacts to it, and their reaction is a new event...
Basically, a story progresses through characters responding to each other. Remember- characters as we're using it means everything in the story!
Of course, characters can directly respond (react) or head in a new direction (act). You can argue that everything's a reaction to something, but we're not going to get into that here. (sorry, probably shouldn't have even said anything)
The key to remember is that characters create the mini-stories inside of the story, and the main story is told through this natural progression.
How do characters develop?
First, here's my simplified definition of development:
Here's why I'm making this point: character development isn't all big stuff. Learning to drive is character development. Learning a new word is character development. A character starting to like another character is character development. A character's opinion being shifted is character development. Not all character development is big and fancy, but whether you consider a character "flat" or "round" they are developing somehow.
Characters have many types of development. They mature, grow wiser, grow more knowledgeable, and also gain bad habits, wrong mindsets, and grow negative seeds in their life. The term "character development" covers all of these things and more.
Characters develop by acting and responding to the world around them. If Sam tells Susie he likes her hair, Susie might wear her hair more like that, or less. If Tim gets pulled over by a police officer on I-95, he's more likely to be careful the next time he drives around the same spot- at least for a while. If Deborah learns her husband is sick, she's likely to feel scared, sad, angry, something in response to that thing.
Characters don't just develop sometimes in a story- they are constantly developing, 100% of the time- just like you do in real life.
But characters develop not just by responding to things- they also have core traits. That said, we get into interesting territory here:
How you approach character development is affected a lot by your worldview. You'll have to decide what you believe, but here are my thoughts and the way that I approach my writing as a result, take them or leave them:
I believe we all have core personality traits and talents. Our responses to everything in addition to spiritual influence determines how we develop (for example, I believe God can deliver us from mindsets, ideas that entrap us that we can't become free from on our own).
That probably sounds strange to you; as I said, you have to figure out your own worldview, because that will affect your writing, just as my mindsets will obviously affect mine: characters could become free from flaws in my stories that in another writer's story they'd be doomed to carry for the rest of their lives. A writer who believes in only nature, not nurture will not have characters impacted the same way. Somebody who believes things can be forced upon you outside of your will or opportunity to escape will write situations differently than a writer who believes it's all choice.
You are the most essential part of your writing process. So figure out your worldview, and write based on that. You will hear writing advice- including from me- that goes directly against what you believe. Either change your beliefs or write from the ones you already hold; don't to tear yourself apart inside writing things you don't believe are true.
So, now that I've clarified that, here's more on my approach to characters based on my worldview that you may disagree with:
On nature plus response working together: a child with a mechanically inclined mind might be fascinated with a gate at the edge of a city, but a child with a creative, nonmechanical mind might be more interested in thinking about what could be on the other side. If both children learn that on the other side is nothing but desert, the former child might then wonder and seek to learn "how could you survive in the desert?" and the latter child might take that as a lesson that "nothing's as good as you imagine it"- if they have a confirmation of that through other experiences or things they've heard others say. They're both responding to the same feedback in different ways because they're different people at their core.
When we have mindsets certain ways we respond differently. Our perspective affects what we do, who we follow, what we care about and how we care about it.
Characters develop based on how they respond to situations. How they respond is dependent on who they are. In some ways, this is very simple; in other ways, extremely complex because of all the elements involved.
Characters can be free from deep roots of bitterness, lies about themselves, and more. They can even receive spiritual insight they might not normally have, although that's a whole can of worms I don't want to open right now. If you believe in a spiritual realm, your writing will definitely be impacted- unless you erase it in your stories, which is not a requirement (though I have this tendency, which probably isn't healthy for my own mind).
What should my characters be like?
They should be whoever your story needs them to be. Since your characters are making the story happen and continue, you need to make sure that they really would while being themselves.
For example, say that you need a character to stay at home while their friends go to the beach because Cthulhu is going to show up and somebody needs to not go insane. Oh, and the character who needs to stay behind also need to be 30 years old. And jobless. And long out of college.
He needs to have a reason to stay home that is more compelling to him than getting out with his friends to the beach. Maybe he's terrified of water; maybe he's terrified of sharks. Maybe he accidentally got really badly sunburned recently- no, wait, he needs to go outside later in the story, that doesn't work... Maybe he's stuck waiting for the cable guy to show up.
Whatever the case, it needs to fit the character. If he went out fishing with his dad all the time as a kid, he's probably not going to be afraid of water or sharks. In that case, the cable guy makes more sense. If he's upset with the cable company, he might leave even if the cable guy is supposed to be coming and he might need the fear of sharks in him or some other reason.
Having a basic story outline is kind of like having the outside edges of a puzzle. Sure, you have the edges, but you still need those middle pieces- you have a lot to work from, but you still need to develop a lot of the story and characters to work with it.
As far as personality, etc, I've heard people say that you should develop your characters to be likeable. Though I want likeable characters, I think that anybody's likeable if you get to know them well enough, so I just focus on creating believable characters instead. So far, I've gotten a lot of compliments on those characters and people who like them!
How much do I need to develop my characters before writing?
The minimum requirement is to develop your characters so you know what they'll do inside of the story (or the stories they'll be a part of). You don't need to know where they'll be in 10 years after the story's over; you might not need to know the character's favorite type of ice cream; you probably don't need to know their shoe size. Only if it directly impacts the story and is necessary do you need to develop this beforehand.
But this goes both ways- makes sure you know your story well enough to develop your characters! I talk about that in this podcast episode. If you haven't developed your story out enough, you won't know what you need to know about your characters for your story.
You'll likely develop characters and stories bits at a time; it's like characters are your left arm and story your right arm, and you're climbing a wall. You need to keep moving both of your arms to keep climbing (actually, I think I've heard the more important part is your legs, but I'll stick with the metaphor for now). You can't go "I'm gonna leave behind my left arm!" You gotta develop your story and characters in tandem, generally. Once you develop so much character, you gotta go back and develop story, and once you develop so much story, you gotta go back and develop character.
How do I develop my characters for the story?
We understand who characters are through their actions and their core. But their actions show how their mindsets, beliefs are acted out by them.
But a dry character description is actually a great place to start! You can break it into pieces and ask "why" for each one.
Here's an example of a character description:
"Sally is a hairdresser with sass. She raises her little brother and lives with her second-cousin, who is rarely home. When at home from her job at the supermarket's dingy salon she does all the research she can on cosmetology, hoping that she can save enough money to become a certified cosmetologist."
BORING! Sort of. We don't really know Sally that well. Let's cut this description down, finely:
Why's her name Sally?
Already we have a question! And this helps us figure out traits of who the character is:
Her grandmother, an army nurse, was named Sally.
We could expand this more, but for now let's move on:
"...is a hairdresser..."
Why is she a hairdresser?
Her mother's cousin owns a salon and taught her about the trade- enough so that she could get a basic job, anyway.
Why is she sassy?
Now, this question is interesting. She might just be sassy as a personality trait- but even then, what reasons does she have to be sassy? Somebody with a tendency to fear is still afraid for a reason. Somebody who's naturally cheerful is often still cheerful for reasons (or maybe not). What's she sassy about?
She has a very defensive personality, and as a child her parents questioned a lot of her choices and would "fix things" for her.
"She raises her little brother"
Her parents, army nurses, were both deployed at the same time, and both passed away in the same battle. They have plenty of government compensation, and Sally is determined to keep her brother with her- both because she's defensive of him and because she's afraid of losing another family member.
You can use this method to keep going and can develop this all out as far as you like. Your work on one character's development can help you develop others as well!
And the "why" questions can work very well because you're generally building your basic description off what's relevant to the story- so all of your "why" questions help you understand how your character became who they are in the story.
Should I make a list of traits?
I have a beef with these lists. Let me explain:
Some questions are really helpful. But here's a list of some of the questions that might not even matter in your story for that character:
- Favorite TV Show
- Favorite ice cream flavor
All right, let's say your character is a 40-year-old black Catholic man whose favorite ice cream flavor is Superman and whose favorite TV show is My Little Pony.
What do you know about them?
Nothing. Except that he's a 40-year-old black Catholic man whose favorite ice cream flavor is Superman and whose favorite TV show is My Little Pony.
My beef with these lists is that I feel like they sell the idea that learning these things tells you anything about your characters beyond what they actually do. If you draw anything from the list above that isn't stated- maybe you think the person's experienced, big and expressive, or solemn, or very devoted, or beefy, or a man-child, or girly- you've just stereotyped heavily based on the above info.
IMO, these lists don't help us really get to know our characters that well- they just show us how good we are at stereotyping. Which is helpful to be aware of, but isn't what we're looking for.
Plus, some of that info might impact the character in the story, but none of it may. If I have a section with characters eating ice cream, knowing their favorite flavors is relevant. But if not, I'm wasting time by developing all of that out, because knowing that Bob's favorite flavor is Peppermint doesn't tell me anything about what he's going to do when the villain holds his family at gunpoint.
Don't force yourself to develop things about your character that are irrelevant to the story and who they are in it. Having a long list of irrelevant character facts will not make your writing better.
That said, if having such a list helps you brainstorm character traits, or gives you confidence in your character, go for it. But still, be cautious of stereotyping. It's okay if your 40-year-old Catholic is solemn, but if you think them being solemn is a must or that them being Catholic automatically means that they're solemn, have a check with yourself. I think we all find how bad (or good, if you want to put it that way) we are at stereotyping when we work with lists like this, but we still need to check ourselves.
Maybe I'm the only person who often finds stereotyping is the result of random trait lists, and all of this is just a personal rant. But I don't think so.
Should my characters be talking to me?
I've rarely if ever had that happen to me, and I've been highly complimented on my characters, readers loving some characters, stating favorite characters, talking about them... My best compliment would have to be a student counselor saying that all of the dialogue in the story, the way things were said, fit right (I wish I could remember the exact quote, it sounded a lot better than that) in my story that involves high school students.
No, your characters don't need to be talking to you. If they do, that's fine too! But do remember that you're still their authority:
"Yahweh said to Moses, 'Put forth your hand, and take it by the tail.' He put forth his hand, and laid hold of it, and it became a rod in his hand." -Exodus 4:4 (WEB)
Creating characters is a fascinating process because when you throw them down into a story they come to life. But as soon as you pick them back up, suddenly they're a tool again- and you can forget that you are allowed to pick them back up and adjust them and use them for whatever you need- even if they're a scary ol' snake. They can't hurt you. Pick that snake character up by the tail and use them for whatever you need! Certainly don't lie about who they are, but don't forget who you are either- you're the authority. You're the writer. You're the god of your story's world.
But be aware of the pitfalls that can come with talking to characters as you're writing a story, especially if you count on conversations with them to develop them:
A character could tell you what a jerk their boss is, but their boss might actually be a really nice person and the character might only be upset at their boss because they remind them of a childhood bully. Characters can be wrong or even lie about others.
A character might say that they have a problem with porn, but that's not the root of the problem. They might not realize that their real problem is loneliness. You might not find out that their problem is loneliness by talking to them; you might just have to be god and know.
Another risk with talking to characters if you can ruin them for the main story. If you talk to a character about the death of their parents, and you help them process it, well, crap- now you have to push them back into the story world, and they have to not remember that conversation or else they'll have jumped ahead of where they're supposed to be. You have to separate the character that you talked to from their version in the story, which makes a series of conversations almost worthless- partly because people change in the middle of deep and meaningful conversations like that. (In fact, the industry of counseling works off that idea)
Or what if your character is the quiet type? They won't share their deepest secrets with you. Or, let's say your character is a mute who never learned sign language or writing. How will you learn their deepest, darkest secrets? How will you learn their motivations? Not by communicating with them- by developing them and considering who they are outside of communication with them.
Also, a character could tell you what they want- that doesn't mean you have to give it to them! Have you ever wanted anything that was bad for you, but you only realized it was bad later? Your characters can be the exact same way! Sometimes you have to take them through their personal hell to get them where you want them to go! Remember they're not the boss- you are. (I'm not saying to have them do what they wouldn't do- we'll get into the Rule of Power in a section coming up soon, where we'll dive more into that.)
Communicating with your characters can work- but you have to beware of pitfalls. And talking with your characters isn't a necessity.
I do want to add that depending on your goals, I recommend not talking with your characters as the writer, but imagining a situation where you're in their world talking to them as an equal. Their responses will likely be very different from if they imagine you to be their creator/writer talking to them.
Is it okay to care about/love my characters?
Absolutely! I think it's important to. But we need to differentiate between caring about/loving your characters and what I call the "My Sweet Baby Syndrome". I named the syndrome after the way that some parents can be with their children:
"Your kid hit my kid."
"My sweet baby would never do that!"
"Mommy, sis stole my yogurt!"
"Sweet Sally would never do that!"
Only it's more like:
"It seems like your character would be envious, wouldn't they?"
"My character would never be envious!"
On the other end, some people afraid of the blinding effects of the My Sweet Baby Syndrome avoid loving their characters at all. But if you want to avoid caring about your characters, you have to separate yourself enough to keep from getting to know/develop who they are. That's a problem too- you have to know who they are, and if you have a heart for connection, you'll feel it! As you try to write what they're doing, you'd probably be constantly disconnecting because of your perspective, keeping you from writing them accurately. (I fell into that for a while; I think this is what happened, but it's been a while and I don't remember now)
You can love your characters and accurately know who they are. Love can cloud your judgment, but it doesn't have to, no matter how good or wicked a character may be. You can love and see the truth!
The Rule of Power
But wait- how can you both have strong characters and strong story? I thought you had to choose!
Well, as we discussed earlier, characters develop story and story develops character. We understand and get to know characters through how they act and what they do, and stories unfold through characters acting and reacting to the mini-stories inside of the big story.
The popular question "Which is more important- character or story?" is intrinsically flawed! I used to believe that question made sense, and it limited me as a writer. Stronger characters lead to stronger story because they make the story happen; stronger story leads to stronger characters because they develop more and we see more of who they are. If your characters ever feel weak, strengthen your story; if your story ever feels weak, strengthen your characters. Characters and story have a mutualistic relationship.
So that all said- how do we create believable stories? Stories that people can get into? Stories that impact? Well, that's one very simple rule- and it's the Rule of Power!
To be clear, this is not the Rule of Manipulation. This is not the Rule of Control. This is not even the Rule of Sending the Message You Want.
The Rule of Power gives your story punch and the theme power. It's what helps people accept your story's theme(s) and apply it to real life. It's the key to believable stories, to truthful stories, to life-changing stories.
Your characters and story will be broken if you don't follow this rule. If you do follow this rule, your characters and story will be on-point in believability, every time, all of the time.
The Rule of Power has increased the speed and confidence of my writing, and even in difficult situations I've been able to write confidently, knowing that I am writing the truth of what would happen in the story where it's at.
The Rule of Power: follow the rules of your story's universe.
The Rule of Power is about telling the truth.
Not what you want to happen- but what would actually happen.
One time, as I was writing a section for Dream High School, two characters (the protagonist and Nancy) got into an argument- at least from Nancy's perspective. The protagonist was a blunt person and had been rude to Nancy, but Nancy had a victim mentality and was being extremely passive-aggressive.
Because of my own personal flaws and triggers, I wanted Nancy to be 100% justified and show how bad of a person the protagonist was. Even though that's not what would happen in the story.
How did I check myself and tell the truth? I followed the Rule of Power. I had to opt for choosing what would happen over what I wanted to happen. You can read the result here (heads-up, it's a very experimental form of writing). Depending on your perspective, this could even be choosing the would over the should.
You might think that telling the truth would decrease the power of a moral- what if you give any space to a perspective you disagree with?
But the truth is always more powerful. It shows multiple sides to the same issue; gives depth to the issue; shows subtleties in difference and gives the audience an honest example of how it causes problems, one they can truly believe in to get your moral.
"Jesus therefore said to those Jews who had believed him, "If you remain in my word, then you are truly my disciples. You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free." -John 8:31-31 (WEB)
It's not opinions, angles, triggers, desired truths, ideas, happy lies, truth evidenced by lies, half-truths, white lies, or thoughts that set people free. It's the truth- and, as a Christian, I'm gonna say the truth from God's perspective. (Again, your personal worldview will impact your writing. If you think it doesn't you're fooling yourself)
Jesus said a lot of controversial things that were true.
"...for the children of this world are, in their own generation, wiser than the children of the light." -Luke 16:8b (WEB)
If you're not a Christian and reading that, you probably like that. It's basically saying that, at the time (and it may still be true today) the people not walking with God were as a whole wiser than the people who were walking with God.
Do you think Christians would ever want to say anything like that in their stories (even though many Christians say just that all of the time). Would you like to say in your story that a group you associate with- a religion, a sexual orientation, a nation- is wrong in any way? It's not a very popular thing to do!
I know I would never like to speak against anybody I sought approval from. But if Jesus, who I look to as the son of God, said something that I think would be wrong to say, I'm the one who's incorrect. Sometimes, as a writer, you are going to have to tell truths that you don't like. I doubt Jesus liked that what he said was the case either.
The thing is, Jesus' words had power because he always told the truth. If he lied 20% of the time, 5% of the time, or even 0.01% of the time, we would question the other words he spoke. We would lose trust. If you believe he lied even once, you're probably more hesitant about other things he said.
The same is true of you and of your story. If you lie in your story in one place, no matter how small- maybe your character does something they wouldn't or you break rules in your story's universe- the rest of the story after it is an impossibility. Your entire story has crumbled because you had to have it happen a certain way.
Don't do that! That's a killed opportunity. Most of the time these issues aren't huge- they're tons of tiny, little lies that add up into a broken story.
The truth sets people free; our own mindsets don't unless they are accurate to reality. What we want to be true doesn't set us free. Do you know how disgusting I would feel if I had just had what I wanted to happen in Dream High School happen?
You have to set rules in your story's universe: about who characters are, what the world's like, society's current standing- you have to know what your story's world is.
Have you ever seen a comedy show, a play, or a movie, where an actor suddenly freezes because they forgot a line, or they begin laughing when the character wouldn't- they stop being their character and they come through instead. They "break character".
Well, breaking character is just as rampant in writing- maybe even moreso- than it is in acting.
Don't have your characters act out of character to try to get across a theme.
Don't twist the way that people work in your story and pretend that mirrors real life.
Have your characters progress as they do, and guide them to the end you have for them.
If you want your theme to have punch, make sure your evidence all lines up. Lies do not set people free. The Rule of Power will help you tell the truth that will.
To be clear, stories that break The Rule of Power may still be believed. Stories that follow the Rule of Power may still be disbelieved. You can't control whether or not people believe your story, but you can control whether or not you tell the truth. But if you want your story to be believed with reason and to be accurate to reality, and to have power behind the theme(s) all the way through, follow the Rule of Power.
The primary theme of your story isn't all that you're teaching. Everything that happens in your story has a mini theme attached. A character stating "I felt really sad when you didn't show up" tells us that when we don't fulfill our promises we can let people down. A side character working hard and then getting a better-paying job at another company tells us that hard work will or at least can be rewarded, even if not by our current employer. A character who's grouchy all the time and complains all the time can send the message that the two are tied together.
One of the reasons the Rule of Power is so important is that you are teaching people things throughout your entire story- your main theme isn't the only one that matters. The Rule of Power holds you to telling the truth and giving your entire story the most potential power.
That said, we've just opened the door to discussion of themes, which is a whole other fun subject. Let's dive in!
What makes stories powerful?
Stories are powerful for many reasons, and I don't think I have all the answers on this by any stretch. But let's look into some things.
All stories have themes. A theme is an idea that the story demonstrates (feel free to replace "idea" with "belief" or "moral", if that helps you).
For example, the idea/belief/moral might be "evil is punished". This idea could be shown by the villain being thrown into prison at the end of the story.
The theme might be "hope is strength". It could be shone through a character continuing in the face of adversity due to their hope, which strengthens them.
If two characters have a conversation about how boundaries are essential to healthy relationships, but that's nonessential to the story, that's not a theme. That's just a conversation in the story. If a character practices boundaries and it results in healthier friendships, that's a theme because the idea that boundaries are healthy is being tested and proven in the story.
The story proves the theme is accurate in the story's world.
"Don't be deceived. God is not mocked, for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap." -Galations 6:7 (WEB)
When we sew good things, we reap good things. When your characters sew good things, they reap good things. So when you see a character reap good or bad things, you can assume (logically) that they sewed good things if they reaped good, and bad things if they reaped bad. But you need to show the full extent of the results as a writer.
Stories are happenings; to understand an event you need to witness the cause or the effect (what is creating the event or what the event is happening to). In presenting cause and effect you will be sharing your beliefs about how it works in the story's world. What causes or can cause this? What is or can be the affect it has? When the story's world reflects real life, this ends up being a theme.
A storyteller may have the view that what happens in their story only happens sometimes, but they're still making the statement that they believe it could happen. Stating that somebody could waste a second chance is certainly a statement about reality. Stating that somebody could take it and progress is also certainly a statement about reality.
You could try to eschew your mindsets by having cause and effect you disagree with, but unless you're making trying to make a point through satire, sarcasm, etc, it's not realy useful to do that- and you could be furthering another person's perspective who you disagree with.
That all said, not everything we present in stories we believe- magic in a story doesn't mean that the story writer believes in magic. The hope is that audiences understand what are our story universe's rules are vs. what we are reflecting of the real world.
A lot of that, however, can be cultural; we might see stories with Roman gods and not see them as making statements about Roman gods or sharing a belief that Roman gods are true. But ancient Romans seeing such stories would likely have a different perspective.
Culture-sensitive or heavily preached topics can be hard to touch without people assuming you're making statements too- for instance, evil businessmen (it usually is men) can make audiences uncomfortable or assume you're stating that businessmen are evil because of the commonality of evil businessmen as a theme, when you just have evil businessmen for your story.
How does this apply to real life?
Technically, in your story you're only really evidencing that your theme is true in your story. But most stories have similarities to real life which we consider to be the most important: they mirror reality as far as character development, psychology, spirituality, etc. So we believe that we can apply these themes to our lives and accept them as truth in reality, not just in the story.
In real life, we take stories as evidence.
If our friend boosts their productivity at work significantly by getting an extra hour of sleep, we take that as evidence that more sleep can or does lead to greater productivity.
If we hear a story online about a stranger helping a child get back home, we take that as evidence that there are well-meaning people in the world.
If we hear from a coworker that our boss yelled at them, we take that as evidence that our boss is a very harsh person.
A story is not just numbers on a sheet like statistics. It's a specific example of how an idea works- it's evidence.
If the theme is faulty, the evidence for it is faulty because it isn't true (or perhaps pieces that actually point to another theme are missing).
Somebody's story might have a theme of "hope is meaningless". In their story, you'll never see hope helping anybody in any way- or the theme they're aiming for will be broken by evidence to the contrary. Since "hope is meaningless" is an absolute statement, anything to the contrary breaks it, such as somebody having extra energy in response to their hope.
The theme cannot be something that isn't demonstrated in the story. A writer might think the theme of their story is "two are better than one"- but if in their story Bob is always protecting Susie and Susie is causing problems the whole way through, that is not actually the theme. That's the desired theme, but not the theme.
But the theme can be generally true and the example flawed.
Somebody's story might have a theme of "God responds to faith". But if the story is about a murderer who has faith in God to cover up his tracks, and God does, we have an obviously flawed example. The theme that God responds to faith is true- but not in this way.
Another example is a theme of "peace is healthy". It's difficult to argue with that. But a sociopath hurting people is not a good demonstration of that theme.
In order to have a strong theme, the Rule of Power must be held to and the story must focus on that theme. You can have your story's one sentence demonstrate the theme, and then follow the Rule of Power throughout to tell an impactful, believable story very practically.
Can stories not have themes? Well, sorta; people can draw themes out of anything though, which isn't really a good or bad thing.
Consider the following macro-event: "Chickens save the world." And the micro-events are "they eat bombs to keep them from exploding", "they dance on top of the world so it keeps spinning", "they eat excess chicken seed so it doesn't take over the world"...
It's a ridiculous, nonsensical story. But you can draw themes: "anybody can help protect others", "we all have a part to play in protecting our planet", "your saviors might be the ones you look down on", and so on. Are they legitimate?
Well, let's change the question: are they true? If they are, do you have any problem with your audience applying them to how they live?
Sometimes a theme isn't even as complex as the large thing that happens. The joy that a character maintains and how they are benefited by it may be a theme because we see a result in them; the way that a character responds to a cruel friend may be used to show their growth; the internal may very well be the focus whether or not we see it as obviously as the external. This is why setting the one sentence for your story is important.
Your themeless story very likely has themes. They're just not at the forefront.
What do I need to tell of my story?
A story is a happening made up of many smaller happenings. The trick is to find what mini-stories make up the main story and then tell solely those.
For example, your story may span 100 years- but you don't need to tell everything that happened in that time frame, such as the length of the 20 years when everything was normal. Or that time when it rained and people got wet. Or the hundreds of times that people went to the bathroom, or the hours that they slept.
To determine what needs to be told, just figure out, "where did this ending come from? How did we get here? What created this?" This is often a great way to brainstorm your story as well. As you grow in wisdom and experience, you'll see how problems and solutions are often created and you'll be inspired by this knowledge to create for your story.
"A man shall be satisfied with good by the fruit of his mouth. The work of a man's hands shall be rewarded to him." -Proverbs 12:14 (WEB)
Whatever the reward at the end of your story, tell of the characters' works that led to it. Whatever the good, show the words spoken in foreshadowing or the good leading up to it. Also, the bad for bad things happening- we reap what we sew.
Remember- story's happenings can be broken up into further, smaller happenings. The key is to grab all of the information needed for the audience to understand and see the main story. Being able to explain your story in one sentene helps tremendously with this.
How specific should I get?
Figuring out what to tell of your story is a balance between speed and clarity in storytelling- the goal is to be concise. You want your audience to know what's going on, and if that establishing shot is necessary, by all means keep that establishing shot, or that opening sentence, or that clashing sound. But some parts will be realized as unimportant- why do you think there are so many deleted scenes in movies? Creators needed to cut down on screen time and maybe cost too, sure, but they also realized that the story was told just fine- or better- without them.
You can get extremely in-depth with what you should keep and what you should cut, and it quickly can get overwhelming. For example, is Bob's sidewards glance relevant to the story? Are those 5 seconds in the car really needed to understand the story? Do we need that camera shot, that sentence, that sound, or is it all unnecessary noise distracting from the story?
Later we'll get into Story Form Theories, which will help you get a general idea for storytelling that will help clear a lot of that up. But for now, just consider what's obviously inside the scope of the main story and what's not. If your main story is how Bob and Susie met, telling your audience about how Bob ate ice cream with the wrong end of the spoon as a kid is probably not helpful for them to understand the main story.
Or, to look at it another way- if your story is just as clear or even clearer when you don't bother sharing a certain piece, that part of the story can be cut out.
Math saves the day!
We can represent our story by drawing lines on the good ol' Cartesian Square. If you remember from algebra, the Cartesian square looks something like this:
We can draw points and lines on the Cartesian Square. What do you think the two dots below are telling?
That's right, those two dots are the end points for a line!
But wait- they might not be...
Those two points could actually be a part of any graph that touches those two points! The two points could be showing this curved line:
Or this... abomination:
We really can't be sure!
If we want the person looking at our graph to know we're talking about a curved line, we need to add more points:
Now just by looking at the points, we can see the finished line! It's way easier.
But the other line, I still wanna bury alive:
It's hard to even see that the dots work for both graphs until you see them here. Even from a large number of points, that last graph is impossible to guess!
We just need to be given all the details, the line itself, flat-out!
So, we figured out what details we need to provide for whoever's looking at the graph to understand the complete picture.
This is how stories work.
What sections of your story do you need to show your audience for them to follow your storyline all the way through, and what can they easily interpret on your own and would be best for you to skip over? Do you need to show the whole thing in exact detail for your audience to follow the story, or can you skip over sections to save time and focus on other aspects of the story?
When there's a sudden change of direction in the story, that's important to show. Or if the audience is likely to be confused and not understand what's going on, you'll want to add more details. But if characters are walking through the desert for 7 hours, not a word between them, just explain it through a simple sentence, a montage, or something like that.
Figure out what parts of the story you need to give more detail on and what parts you don't. Trust your audience, but don't give them an impossible task either (unless you want it to be impossible/difficult for them).
If the story is "Bob went out on his first date with Susie", you don't need to see much of Bob walking home, or Bob sleeping, or Bob driving to the coffee shop. Sure, show that it's happening, but just give enough detail so that the audience knows that it's happening, not so that the 20-minute car ride actually lasts 20 minutes of time for the audience. That would be a waste of their time- and yours as a creator!
You also wouldn't see anything about what Susie did that night or how she got prepared because the main story is specifically about Bob. Susie's actions are largely irrelevant in the scope we've set. If we changed the macro-event to "Susie went out on her first date with Bob" we've shifted the focus and would spend more time on Susie's side.
Basically, you need to figure out how much detail you need to provide for your audience to interpret the complete picture. You want them to understand the story.
"The work of righteousness will be peace; and the effect of righteousness, quietness and confidence forever." -Isaiah 32:17 (WEB)
If you are focusing on a positive story, you will be focusing on the positive aspects that led up to it. If you are focusing on a story about jealousy, however, you will be focusing on the negative fruits that led up to it. Your story determines what work you discuss and focus on. Not just the work in the moment, and not just the result- but both the moment and the result. Don't forget that both are extremely relevant to your story.
Note that if your main story changes, what matters will most definitely change. For example, if your one sentence changes from "Bob starts dating Susie" to "Bob falls in love with Susie" we'll likely be covering a greater length of time, putting more emphasis on Bob thinking about her when he's alone, etc. Or if the story is "Susie first notices Bob" the story will be much shorter and focus on Susie's perspective specifically.
You can look at this for sub-events in your story as well as for the macro-event! For example, what do you think needs to be told of the time Susie accidentally slammed the door on Bob's hand after he asked her out?
Remember, a story is a macro-event, and it's made up of smaller events, and all of those events are stories too. Which means that whatever concepts you can apply to the main story- the macro-event- you can apply to the smaller events as well!
We communicate stories through story forms. A story form is just a way that you tell your story. Some examples of story forms are:
- Books (Novels, Web Serials, etc)
- Videos (Movies, TV Shows, etc)
- Comics (Graphic Novels, Manga, etc)
- Dramatized Audiobooks
- Board Games
But how do these work? Well, we consider how story forms work not by their physical properties- paper, digital, etc- but by how the story form makes us relate to the story. That's all that truly matters from a creative perspective anyway, isn't it?
Every time that we communicate, we have a range of potential interpretations of what we've said. Story forms are the same, and we can consider the range of interpretation for each of our senses! I like to group them all into five categories, but you can split them up however you want!
Our range of interpretation is on a scale from 1 potential interpretation to infinite potential interpretations, but it has four important points we can use for identification:
Fewer interpretations means interpretations are Set, and more interpretations means interpretation is Unset. Remove, the above are just points on a scale- you can be between each of these points!
Determined allows storytellers to get across exactly what they mean- there's no potential for misunderstanding. Determined can show things difficult to understand from description.
In Star Wars, we can see the technology, worlds, and characters and understand them precisely. All the description required to get across the details of Star Wars' universe would be overwhelming and the vision still wouldn't be gotten across with such precision.
Represented shows enough to get across meaning without showing the fullness that could be overwhelming or distracting. Things that aren't normally noticed can also be exaggerated and given greater focus. Audiences share mostly the same experience; they aren't usually expected or even supposed to consider beyond the representation.
Cartoons' Visual are arguably Represented; their stylistic approaches keeps us from being distracted by all the details real life has. They often emphasize with exaggerated muscles, eyes, or motion.
Described leaves much open to interpretation but still gives guidance. People can focus on considering what they've been given instead of trying to figure out what they've been given. People will have similar experiences, but it's still very personal.
If you make a bold statement about visual, audio, etc, people will agree with you because they are experiencing their interpretation: nobody will disagree that it was "the most fearsome monster ever" or "the most majestic mountain".
Imagined allows openness of interpretation, which leads to a deep feeling of investment and participation by the audience. They're telling the story! Nobody will have the same experience- Imagined is personal.
Completely Imagined is daydreaming, but some Story Forms get are very close to Imagined. Consider the interpretation of Paintings' time: extremely personal, often less Set than Described.
Examples in identifying forms
Click the heading to check out different forms! Note that there's such a range used for different media that you'll likely come up with many exceptions to the sense/interpretation pairings below.
Some takeaways of Story Forms
If something is hard or impossible to describe, present it.
If something is hard or impossible to present, describe it.
Set Interpretations present things as they are, Unset Interpretations allow openness. The goal in storytelling is understanding; both fulfill that goal in different scenarios.
Examples of hard to present are thoughts, the 4th spacial dimension, angels, God, or something that the audience has to agree is the most terrifying, beautiful, or evil ever. For these, Unset Interpretations are better.
Examples of hard to describe are the specifics of a building, a winding trail path, complex alien creatures, or subtle motion (while keeping it subtle). For these, Set Interpretations are better.
If you want to give details use Set Interpretations.
If you want to give a general idea use Unset Interpretations.
Sometimes details are important to understand what is happening. The exact sleights of hand a magician makes, for example, would be best explained with Set Interpretations.
A picture is worth a thousand words. Show us a picture rather than giving us a thousand words; we'll get your precise meaning.
On the other hand, details can be very distracting. We've all seen Powerpoint presentations with worthless images that, although they may help clarify a point or make something more specific, takes our focus away from the primary message. We may be focusing, but we're not focusing on the main message.
If you want something to have one or few interpretations use Set Interpretations.
If you want something open to interpretation use Unset Interpretations.
Consider your goals in storytelling too: you can't describe the rise and fall of a multi-generational empire with Determined Time in five minutes; you'll probably need to use Described Time.
You can give a broad definition with Unset Senses but Set Senses tell the whole thing and can distract from the main point. Of course, Set Senses can also tell the main point more effectively if detail is important.
If you want shared focus among Senses use similar Interpretations.
If you want focus on particular Senses make them more Set and other Senses less Set.
Senses equally Set are equally open to consideration; we focus wherever we're directed to focus. In Novels everything is Described so we'll focus on whichever sense is mentioned at the time.
But when Interpretations vary, Set Senses take the focus over Unset Senses. If you want an Unset Sense to be noticed amongst Set Senses you need to bring attention to it, and the audience will usually only feel safe interpreting from it if it's Described.
Some audience members may interpret Unset Senses in the midst of Set Senses, but the Unset Senses still don't have the same focus. This general behavior can be a very good thing; if the audience tried to interpret the Unset Senses and later learned they made a wrong interpretation, they would feel jarred.
If things may distract from your story use Unset Senses.
If your storytelling environment will be controlled any Senses work.
Set Senses can clash with real life; you are probably not going to be able to hear the sound from a movie well on a subway. Unset Sound in this case is better for telling the story because our imagination can block out real life.
A movie theater is a great place to watch a movie because it is a controlled environment.
Though you can't always limit where your audience takes in your story, you can consider where your target audience spends most of their time. If most of their free time is on a subway, Unset Audio would be kindest to their ears. If they have the most free time driving, Unset Visual is a much safer decision.
If you want a unique personal experience, use Unset Senses.
If you want a similar group experience, use Set Senses.
Unset Senses create unique personal experiences because they're open to interpretation. Set Senses allow people in the audience to have the same general experience.
If a group watches a movie together, they'll all see the same visual and hear the same sound. If a group reads a book together, they'll have different interpretations of how things look and sound.
Every Interpretation has strengths and weaknesses which means every story form has strengths and weaknesses.
No story form is the best story form. Every story form has strengths and weaknesses.
Different stories have different needs. Different stories are best told through different forms.
Every story form is good for some stories, and not good for others. Every story form is good, just not good for every story. Different stories are told most effectively in different ways.
Every story form is good- just not the best choice for every story.
This is just an intro!
"What if I want to follow the Rule of Power but my characters would do things that aren't family-friendly, and my target audience is children?"
"How can I use Story Forms to work in upcoming media, like VR, and get an edge right away?"
"What about interactivity, like in videogames or visual novels? How do I use that effectively?"
If you want to learn more about Story Theory from me, you have a few different options:
- Check out my other resources, like the podcast Inspector Josh Investigates TV. Hours of more free content are at your fingertips!
- Email me, and we can talk about online tutoring! I can also offer specific feedback for your project, if you want to see how it would apply to a WIP.
- Talk to people and create a buzz for a workshop/speaking event to be set up in your area. I'm open to doing workshops and speaking engagements worldwide, for writers of all skill levels, corporations, and events!
Also, if you've made it this far I assume this has been really helpful and/or interesting to you! If that's the case, please consider sharing this page, emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org to let me know, @'ing me on Twitter, or even sending me some money through PayPal!
Whatever your next step may be, I wish you the best in all your storytelling endeavors! Always feel free to email or tweet me on Twitter about whatever cool stuff you're doing!
Peace!Copyright 2017 Josh Powlison. Feel free to print this out for personal, noncommercial use! For any other uses, please email me.