OK. So in the first post in this story development process, we discussed the story seed. How a plot idea has character blended into it using the five components of character and a series of questions to ask of your character in the context of the plot idea which will help inspire story growth. We developed the premise of how a funeral, so definitive of death and driven by the most extreme depth of sadness, can also be so joyous and positive.
We also decide that it didn’t really feel like a very good story at that point! The key point is a third element known as STORIFICATION.
What do you do next?
When we get an idea, we need to know if it will ‘translate’ into a good story. this translation is a skill you can learn. It involves questioning the premise to see if it contains what we need: namely, a character ‘journey’ and a pervasive knowledge gap or gaps that will bring profound meaning to a receiver of your story.
A character journey is a story experience for the character which demonstrates, to us in the audience, through the actions and behaviours of a character a storification gap. There are many types of storification gaps (detailed in The Primary Colours of Story when it comes out!). Storification is the ‘magic’ that happens when a story gets a grip on you. It happens when your own thoughts about the story you are experiencing become contributions to the story itself. A writer does not simply narrate information at a receiver. A writer leaves gaps so the receiver has to work; they contribute to the story content by filling those gaps for themselves. A reader is not simply a receiver of text, but a producer of story. We will look at this in more detail in the next post. For the moment, storification is the greatest work a receiver does is in the grand scale; the lesson they learn from the folly or wisdom of the protagonist demonstrated through the decisions they make. The most obvious example is the moral message in a children’s story. We experience a character – say, a little girl in a red hood – becoming involved with a cross-dressing wolf with large appendages, and we come away from this story feeling that children should not talk to strangers. The story ‘storifies’ in our mind, and therefore has magnificent power.
It’s not possible to be specific about your story, but I can tell you this: Storification is the secret to the power in your story, too. Here are the most common ones:
Life understanding. We are left with some sagely reflection that ‘life is like that’. Or ‘this is how a person should lead their life’. See for example, the short film The Maker.
A problem. And the character’s attempts to solve it. The choices the characters make under pressure of conflict teach us something about how to handle such problems. Any cop drama or mystery story is in this space, of course.
A world thrown out of balance, or a human error. The attempts to bring the world back into balance will succeed or fail. See for example, the short film The Jigsaw.
A lesson. Usually a life lesson or some form of moral understanding from the characters’ actions and behaviours. We are looking for a lesson learned through dramatic action and the outcome or consequences of that action. Bible stories are a good example of life lessons in a moral context. It is the consequences of decisions made under pressure that truly drive a story.
A Moral Argument. Almost all stories embody a moral argument. If you can clearly state the morality addressed by your character journey, you are very strongly empowered to deliver a strong story. The film Juno (2007) is a fine example of a story with a moral argument at its core. I look more deeply at this topic in my blog post Morality in Stories.
Character growth. A character’s values or fortunes or quality of life change significantly across the course of their experiences as a result of the actions and decisions they take. The outcomes of their actions cause change and growth and learning. See for example, this 90-second trailer from the Disney film Frozen. The characters make a journey from lost and alone in a winter wilderness to becoming friends (because of the choices they make). Most of the finest stories of all time have a character change their fortunes – for better or for worse – as a result of the actions they take under pressure.
These categories will almost certainly overlap into each other. And do not forget that in all the above categories, the audience is doing the work as well as the learning. The character may or may not succeed, and may or may not learn a lesson. Their tragic failure to learn will still show an audience what they should have done, so feel free to have characters fail!
To find these kinds of dynamics, you must interrogate your idea. So the questioning begins -what if? what if? what if? Then what, then what, then what? Keep flexible. Keep changing your viewpoint and possibilities, however ridiculous. Nothing is off the table at this point. Let your imagination fly. We are looking for characters and their actions to jump out. Look to trap your characters into tough decisions – a dilemma or choice of evils. Look for those decisions to show us consequences. That is when we start to work on your story and that is when we take ownership and love it.
From my inspiration for Bella, I can see that my story is going to tick several of these boxes. The main one is a ‘life lesson’. My character will mourn and grieve appropriately, and because of that choice – to embrace that death and immerse themselves in ‘formal’ misery, they will eventually find a way out. Death happens but life goes on. ‘Life is like that’. And ‘this is the way a person should lead their life’. If I show my audience these lessons – this is what happens if a human being reacts to these circumstances with these good decisions – if I demonstrate the outcomes a person gets from choices they make, then the story WILL have power. When you watch the film shortly, you should be able to see the truth in this and why my ability to identify this storification gives me confidence in a story which, as you will also see, has no dialogue, no bad guy, no conflict… none of the usual structures. The reason I do this is to demonstrate to you the critical element of story, and that is storification. If it storifies then it works – that’s the rule – and I am confident I can make this story storify.
There are also hints of several other of the common storifications so I am very comfortable that it is shaping up nicely.
So, having identified the basic journey, I can now see the destination in terms of the storification. That’s a journey which now carries story power.
A character is grieving. And their life has been thrown out of balance by death. A story that shows how to deal with death and how to grieve is a good life lesson. This is all very promising. So my story will be a character who arcs from the depths of despair, but through the decisions they make under the pressure of grief, they find themselves in a happy place again by the end.
Excellent! So we have our basic premise. Mine will be a story about a person grieving a death. They will journey from lost, alone, bereft and devastated to some form of renewal; of hope, of benefit for others, and in doing so, will demonstrate to us in the audience how one should look after oneself through the process and ritual of grieving. The sadness will be implicit to the death, but the joy will come through catharsis. Aristotle would approve!
I can still sense that you aren’t particularly gripped yet! It sounds more like a documentary about going to a funeral with someone. Well, we are not done yet! One critical step still to be taken which adds the substance of story. An element that turns a series of events into a thing called a story, and that is: knowledge gaps.
Stories are made from gaps in knowledge. Knowledge gaps cause subtext. Knowledge gaps are nothing less than the defining substance of story.
So click here to go to Bella session 3 – the Knowledge Gaps instalment.
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