Friday, December 26, 2014

How To Story: Suggestion Box Edition!


To be perfectly honest, I never actually knew how to write a story until my junior year in high school. Prior to that, I did write—I was plunking out stories on the computer as early as age eight—but it was all purely based on whim, with little purpose, no conflict, and usually as many characters as I could think of names. (and boy, did I have a lot of names in those days!) The stories would meander for quite a long time, till I had exhausted all my wild fancies, and I would bring it all home with a rousing finish—or I would not finish it at all.

Then, by the time I reached high-school age (thanks, homeschool...) my parents finally found some literature courses that went beyond the mechanics of English and making sure I could comprehend what I read, to breaking down the seven parts of a story: the Introduction, the Inciting Moment, the Rising Action, the Climax, the Falling Action, the Resolution, and (a favorite word of mine) the Denouement. (Day-new-MWAH)

Suddenly, I understood what made my favorite stories so compelling, I knew what drew me to some books and not others; most of all, I knew what my stories needed, to give them purpose and direction so I would never be wandering aimlessly again.

From then on, whenever I planned out a novel, I would simply make sure that whatever scenario I planned would hit each of these points at some juncture, like "checkpoints" in a video game—I could go where I pleased, so long as I stayed within the vicinity of the framework, close enough to the "invisible line" that I could always "rein" the story in when it was time to clear the next checkpoint. I would introduce the characters, the setting, establish the problem, figure out a reasonable series of conflicts the characters would have to face in confronting that problem, carry them to the climax—that is, the "point of no return", the single defining moment, beyond which my characters would not be the same sort of people they began my story as—and from that point, what mattered was a resolution to all the conflict I had built up, and a final denouement that was the solution to the problem and gave indication of what life would hopefully be like after the conclusion of this particular story.

Armed with this method and my understanding of the story framework, I ventured on to make longer novels with simpler "casts" and richer conflict, more purposeful and natural-sounding dialogue. My "stories" exploded from a mere 20 pages to 50 or more, and I even found that the method could condense down to short stories of less than 5 pages.... But how? How does one start a story out of the blue, much less make a convincing plot out of it?

What I am about to attempt explanation for is the secret I use to create a compelling "excerpt" every week for my Suggestion Box series. First of all, for the sake of the example, I have condensed the "story frame" from seven points to four. The principles are the same, it just is not quite so complicated to get through them. And while the scenes I wrote for the 2013 series didn't necessarily need every part of a complete plot, you may notice that I managed to hint at, foreshadow, or mention every point in even just the short excerpts that only took a week to plan, and under an hour to write.

So here it is, "How to Story," Leslie-style, with examples from both the 2013 and 2014 series.

1. Character
Here is where the Introduction point would fall. You might think, "Oh, but this one was easy; you had things like character and setting handed to you already in the Suggestion Box!"
No, all I had was a name, and some random place. I still had to decide how old the person was, their occupation, rank, personality, whether or not there would be any supporting roles, who in fact those roles would be—things like that. 
My favorite part when writing a Suggestion Box post would have to be seeing how much of what I know about the submitter ends up influencing how the post ends up; one follower I happened to know was really into steampunk, (#1.4) so I wrote his segment in that style; another had aspirations of filmmaking, so when he offered a list that involved a century, a puzzle in 4 pieces, and Egypt, I enjoyed adding a bit of the "Indiana Jones" vibe to the characters and setting. (#1.8)

Developing a character doesn't have to take a long time, and it might not be your first idea. For example, in 2013 I received a list with the name "Elena Knight." (#1.5) You can see that I ended up writing two ideas for that one. My initial picture of the character was as someone within a narrative (the "blurb" I included). With that, though, I could only realize a vague sense of who the character might be—so instead of writing an excerpt using that character, I switched roles and made the character a writer instead, using the vagueness to my advantage and taking the opportunity to "set up" the character and somewhat of the setting in a way that the Introduction portion of a story should, even in just a few sentences. A character may be established not necessarily by a detailed description of their appreance, but by the way they interact with their surroundings and other characters. If you have a setting--like a house in the woods, or that awesome-looking fountain at the center of the town square--start thinking of characters to go with it. If you have the characters--a girl with dark hair and mysterious eyes, or a man clad in a leather jerkin with a backstory known to few--consider a setting that would best fit the sort of story they have, and work your introduction accordingly.

As for the continuous story of 2014, I honestly didn't know that was going to be continuous until the second post. The first list (#2.1) was so specific, I didn't really have an option of doing anything beyond a space-themed scene (and, actually, the idea of a spaceship controlled by an unsuspecting video game is partly inspired by the original Tron film and also a fanfiction I wrote earlier this year for a show that got cancelled) but I did not particularly like writing in space. Then Faith Dunmore and her dank shed came along (#2.2), and—because that particular submitter loved fantasy and went by the name Ecrivaine, I simply began by referencing the previous section, thereby connecting them, and decided to see how long the story would last if I continued working every list into the basic story plot featuring Faith as the main (albeit reluctant) protagonist, the Ecrivaine and the dragon as the recurring theme (in the parts where Faith could not be present, such as #2.4), and (later) Alexander VanTussel as the antagonist. Once that was set, every new name merely became peripheral to those two. (#2.15)

Once the characters and the players are established, it is time for them to go head-to-head.

2. Conflict
Conflict is what keeps readers coming back, because we are looking for resolution. Without resolution, the conflict becomes boring—like the show Once Upon A Time, that essentially started with a popular fairytale resolution and has been in a never-ending cycle of conflict without true resolution for the four years since. (But that is for another post)
As for the Suggestion Box series, it usually hinted at or dealt with some kind of conflict: from a character destroying the Fountain of Youth that was the source of her community's immortality (#1.12), to another supposedly on the run from a nebulous murderous entity (#1.7), to yet another who was simply afraid of heights (#1.11). A segment could simply be the presenting of a mystery, such as a murder in which someone alerted the authorities just moments after it happened—but who and why? (#1.2) Or an abandoned child in the woods, discovered by an innocent schoolteacher. (#1.6) In the "steampunk" story I mentioned earlier, the object was "numbers," so I had to think, "What would be an enemy of numbers?" What about nullifying them? Perhaps Nullifying could have some connotation of losing their lives... Thus the mission of Teresa, the Fourth, to reach the Londonshire sanctuary (or "Base-10," as I called it) was born.
Conflict doesn't have to mean enemies with one another. Any sort of problem will do. The style of the Suggestion Box allowed me to just start with whatever came to mind first and go from there.

With the 2014 series it was only slightly more complicated. Not only did I have to take the characters and establish some sort of conflict every week, but I also had to make sure it tied in to the overall plot line: a dragon summoned from another world in the seventeenth century must be returned in the same manner by another Ecrivaine (#2.8)—but how to get Faith from England to Scotland? (#2.3) What can I do to tie the past with the present if I can't be using the dragon all the time? (#2.10) What in the world could I do with a can of frozen orange juice in a secret passageway inside a trunk that has something to do with the year 4093—and still ties into the story somehow? (#2.11) Again, the beauty of the structure of the Suggestion Box allowed me to start and stop where I wished, and if the sections connected like a story (as with the meeting between Miranda and Courtland in #2.6 and #2.7) so be it, but if not, that unresolved conflict was sure to hold interest till I was able to return to the present-day characters (Faith and Darren) (#2.9) and deal with bringing their story to a resolution.

So this plot point, simplified, contains all of the Inciting Moments (such as Pierre arriving in England with Faith and leaving her with Darren) and the Rising Action (their journey to Scotland, against the backstory introducing the Ecrivaine, the dragon, and the Ring and its importance (#2.5))... 

But every conflict needs a tipping point.

3. Climax
The climax; the tipping point; the point of no return. I would say that this was the place I probably ended the scenes from the 2013 Suggestion Box the most—only because, let's face it, resolution is the hardest part, so if it's not going to be a whole story, why bother working to resolve it? The climax: the instant Horatio Whistlestop finds the rope and realizes he is not alone on this uncharted Phoenician island (#1.9) (I think perhaps the submitter meant Polynesian, as "Phoenician" no longer exists... But as a policy, I am stuck with whatever the submitter gives me); the moment of discovery for an archaeologist and his grandson, working on the same puzzle one hundred years apart (#1.8); the moment the acrophobic individual commits to riding a hot-air balloon. (#1.11) A climax doesn't have to be a long, drawn-out process. It can be as simple as a single step, a sentence, an instant.

The moment of climax in the 2014, incidentally, I don't think has happened yet. There have been small climaxes throughout: the battle between Magdalena and Wallenstein (#2.8), the abduction of Lady Iona (#2.5), the moment when Miranda met Pierre (#2.6), or when Jo discovered the identity of the Ecrivaine (#2.14); the time when Darren realized that Faith wasn't a bother, that his job of protecting her wasn't over (#2.13). One might say that the point at which Alexander VanTussel enters the scene (#2.12) could be a sort of climax, because that segment turned the nature of the conflict from "character vs. time/place" (since they had a limit to when and where the problem--the dragon--could be resolved) to "character vs. character" by giving Faith and the others a physical antagonist to deal with.

A climax doesn't need hand-to-hand combat or some huge dramatic reveal, or even the death of any characters; sometimes a climax is the decision by the character that the way of life from the beginning of the story is altogether unsatisfactory, that something must change in order to resolve the conflict that has been going on. It is that moment of change that becomes the climax of the story. Without change, the story seems to go on forever, and there is no real resolution. Change is like punctuation in the middle of a sentence, whether it's a comma or a semicolon; it provides variation in the inflection and gives the sentence meaning. Without punctuation the sentence runs on and becomes very bland and boring and the reader loses interest before you're even half done and you have to work twice as hard to figure out how to end the thing.

And speaking of ending...

4. Conclusion
This point covers the Falling action, the Resolution, and the Denouement of a story. Once your story has built its way up to the climax, it is time to bring it home and demonstrate how the changes that happen will affect the rest of the characters and the days following the eventual end of the story. This doesn't mean every problem has been totally solved; while the most satisfying stories might achieve this, there could be some loose ends from the "Rising Action" portion that don't quite fit in with how the "world" looks by the end of the story, and so that must remain a loose thread. (or it was a character who was only important in one scene, so they don't really need an "end" to their story)
The 2013 Suggestion Box series, with its individual, unrelated scenes, did not have very many conclusions. Most often, I left the scene open at the end, stopping in the midst of the rising action, at the inciting moment, or even at the climax, with no falling action or resolution. I gave Suzannah a resolution to the guilt that plagued her at the beginning of her segment (#1.10); I let Roger and Butterfly Huffingtree have a satisfying conclusion to his decision to go with her on the hot-air balloon; the first list I ever did (#1.1) wasn't really an excerpt at all, but a news blurb, in which the character is an author who had just released a new novel--which in itself I guess could pass for "unresolved conflict", but as far as the character herself goes, more resolution than climax there!

The 2014 Suggestion Box Series, on the other hand, is not quite concluded yet... but tomorrow, it will be. There are still several things in the process of resolving already, but not quite finished. I've established what needs to be done, and given the characters a way to accomplish it--but the wily antagonist is still on the loose, and must be dealt with before the story can really end.
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This was a very brief, very example-ridden method for telling a story; I may get more into the mechanics of storytelling in a later post, if you all want something more thorough. I have just been asked several times how on earth I can come up with these ideas at such short notice, so I just thought I might share some of the process. Really, if writing is something you want to start doing a lot, but you're not exactly sure where to start, the best thing you can do is to read a bunch. I know that the more books I read, the better my writing became, because reading does have an effect on the way your brain perceives things and the way it reasons. Read well to write well. If you have any additional questions that I did not quite address, feel free to ask them and I will make sure to answer your question in the next "How To Story" post!
As a final wrap-up, here is a brief breakdown of the seven points, as they were organized into the four groups in this post:
1. Character/Context 
-Introduction/Exposition: The part of the story that sets up the place for your tale and the characters involved in it. It doesn't have to be very long, and it doesn't have to contain all of the characters ever to appear in the story. Also, this is the part where you introduce the potential for the problem, but not necessarily the problem yet. (Ex: two children playing with the ball might not be a problem, but if one of the children likes to throw the ball high in the air and they are playing near the street, there is a lot of potential for problem there)

2. Conflict 
-Inciting Moment: The instant where change begins to happen. (Ex: the child throws the ball higher than it ever has been before)
-Rising Action: The progression of complications or problems that build up to a turning point in the story. (Ex: the ball catches a breeze and bounces into the street; the children are worried about their ball; one child starts chasing after the ball; a truck is coming and may or may not see the child chasing after the ball)

3. Climax 
-The Point of No Return: The thing that happens in the story that officially changes it from the way it was at the beginning of the story to something different by the end. (Ex: the driver hits the brakes in time, and the child is saved, but the ball is lost in traffic; or perhaps the driver stops but not quite in time, and the child is injured, forever changing the way that child will play ball ever again) The climax is the point of the story where the character accepts this new scenario, rejects the old one, and moves forward with additional purpose to answer the conflicts that have been building up over the course of the narrative. Whatever the case, there is no "going back" for the characters once the moment of climax has happened.

4. Conclusion
-Falling Action: The small resolutions to the conflicts that occurred during the Rising Action. (Ex: the injured child is taken to the hospital and recovers)
-Resolution: The final "main conclusion" to the "main problem" of the story. (Ex: the child who was originally playing dangerously with the ball learns his lesson and resolves to play safely with the ball next time)
-Denouement: Usually reserved for stories with a slightly more complicated plot line involving a subplot with other characters. The final "tying off", if the story needs it. (Ex: Next time the children are again playing with a ball, everyone plays safely, and the ball no longer goes into traffic, demonstrating that there will be no need to repeat the same conflict scenario from before)