Sunday, May 6, 2012

Story Development Steps - Story Fundamentals

REVISED September 18, 2014


The broad, first steps in writing a successful story are outlined below in two sections. The first lists The Story Fundamentals. The second is The Story Development Process.

I believe the Story Fundamentals should be listed on the first page of every script or manuscript because it sets up the reader in much the same way that a movie goer is set up to see a  movie. No movie goer attends a movie without first understanding what the movie is about in a general way; they know the fundamentals of the particular story.  So, that is how scripts should be read, with a page listing the Story's Fundamentals right up front.

For the writer, it really does not matter HOW you get to the story fundamentals. But knowing the fundamentals of your story are critical to effective and efficient writing the treatment and subsequent drafts of script or novel.

For my story coaching clients, the more you can provide me with at least complete the first eight (1-8) steps below and send to me for review before we talk, the more effective will be our time together on step 9. (Few of my clients actually have all of the questions below answered when they come to me. But our discussion is aimed at that end.) Once you get past step 9 your story will practically write itself, in terms of plot at least.

What You Should Know Before You Start Writing,
and my goal in coaching you... to get you here.
  2. HOOK
  3. LOG-LINE (Short and Long), TAG LINE
  4. CONFLICT OF VALUES (Simple Dipole, Linear Nicomachean, or Layered Nicomachean)
  5. MORAL PREMISE STATEMENT (Simple or Complex)
  7. Protagonist's physical GOAL and STAKES
  8. MAJOR BEATS FOR PROTAGONIST (13-19, Turning Points, Disasters and Sequences)
Now you can start to write, in order:

     9. SYNOPSIS (600 words with ending)
    10. OUTLINE (every major scene)
    11. TREATMENT (prose short story)
    12. DRAFT (formatted)

Steps to Writing a Successful Screenplay, Play or Novel

Here is a more detailed breakdown of the above.

The first eight steps should be executed iteratively. That is, it doesn't matter where you start, or in what order you do the steps in; although there is a logic to the order as presented. But it may not be your logic. So, just get on with it. Whatever works. Do it!

With each progression, go back and review the former decisions and see if they still fit. When you're done with 1-9 there should be a cohesiveness that will naturally drive steps 10-12. Although... even in working on 10-12 you will probably need to go back and revise 1-9. You're not God, so plan to do it over, and over, and over until you get it right.

My consulting is principally focused on the first eight steps and then how the decisions made are executed in your subsequent writing. These structural steps should be imbued in every sequence, every scene, and every dialogue exchange (and when it comes to production... in the casting, art direction, cinematography, music, etc.... all the way through marketing.) In the end the project should fit perfectly together and allow your story to resonate deeply with your audience.

1A. What is your story's working TITLE?

1B. What is the story's GENRE?

1C. What ERA (time period) does the story take place in?

1D. What is the story's SETTING (location, country, class)?

1E. What is the target  audience's DEMOGRAPHIC? (Sex, Age)

2. What is the story's physical HOOK? (this is the story's physical premise)

3A. What is the SHORT LOG LINE? (10-second pitch)

3B. What is the LONG LOG LINE? (or 60-second pitch)

3C. What is the story's TAG LINE? (What is the emotional heart of the story expressed in a short pithy line that would go on a poster?)

4.  What is the core CONFLICT OF VALUES that all the characters deal with?

5.  What is the MORAL-PHYSICAL PREMISE STATEMENT that guides every aspect of the film/novel?
6.     PROFILE MAIN CHARACTERS (start with your protagonist), in a short, descriptive and compelling paragraph that tries to answer these questions. You might construct these as interviews, with you asking the questions, and the character answering.
  • What is the character's name, sex, age, career, family?
  • What is she/he trying to accomplish? What is his/her goal for each of the subplots in his/her storyline, e.g., personal, family, professional, hobby, romance. Which of these plots drives the overall story? (i.e. there are multiple characters with multiple sub-plots, but ONLY one character, and ONLY one sub-plot for that character will drive the story forward.)
  • What is the character's moral vice or weakness?
  • What is the character's moral virtue or strength?
  • How does the character transform and change?
  • Who is trying to stop the character from reaching their goal?
  • What happens if the character fails? (i.e. what are the stakes?)
  • What irony is involved in each of the physical storylines?
  • What irony is involved in the psychological storylines?
7.   Describe
  • Protagonist's Physical GOAL
  • STAKES if goal is not achieved?
8.  Outline the MAJOR BEATS (13-19), first, for the protagonist across the 3 ACTS. Describe, also, the major beats (3-9) for each secondary character. (see description under 11)


9.  Write a 600-word SYNOPSIS that dramatically summarizes the main character and the major beats revealing the story's resolution.

10. Construct a scene OUTLINE. If you've followed my goals and plots advice, you will have beat out every storyline for all the characters. The protagonist will have between 3 and 6 story lines, one of which will be the physical spine of the story and include no less than 13 major beats. Minor characters will have between 1 and 3 story lines, none of which will exceed 13 beats, and most will have from 3 to 9 beats.  Place (stick) all of those story line beats (now on 3x5 cards) on the wall (like a large story diamond) and discover in what scenes the various beats of the various story lines occur simultaneously.  From this, draft your scene outline, including every beat of every storyline. Exclude establishing shots. This outline can then be expanded into prose, creating a full treatment.

11. Write a succinct prose TREATMENT (not script formatted). Make it read like a high-level short story. Avoid too much detail.

12. WRITE the first draft properly formatted. (Review and Repeat ad nauseam.)


David M. said...

Thank you for this story development steps.
You mention the irony three times.
"Ironic elements of character, plot, and setting"
"What irony is involved in each of the physical storylines?"
"What irony is involved in the psychological storylines?"
For me, the (dramatic) irony: The audience knows information that the characters do not. But I feel, for you, irony is an opposition from two elements that produces a contradiction.
So irony could be...
- For the characters: conflict of values ​​(vice vs. virtue)?
- For setting?
- For physical storyline: conflict between actions of protagonist and antagonist?
- For psychological storyline: conflict of values ​​(vice vs. virtue)?

Stanley D. Williams said...

David M: What a great "set-up" you provide me. I just don't have the time right now to answer your question fully. (Irony: I know the answer but I won't tell you. ...just kidding.)

I just got back from giving a workshop in L.A., in part, on this very topic and will be providing it in some short version on this blog.... but not sure when I'll get to it.

Here's the answer you want.

1. That the audience knows information that the characters do not is a form of irony, IF what the audience expects from the situation is opposite to what is likely to happen. (expectation vs. reality)

2. Another way of thinking of the same thing is that the actions of the characters (or the direction of the plot) is in contradiction to common sense or perceived natural law. This assumes the audience knows something the characters don't, OR (like in THE STING) the characters know something the audiences does not. See:

Example: David fights Goliath. In the first definition either the audience KNOWS the outcome ahead of time or not. If the audience knows the story then the irony is focused on Goliath, because Goliath does not know he's dead meat-- expectation is opposite of reality.

If the audience does NOT know the story then the irony is focused on the audience, because David is going to chop off Goliath's head -- expectation is opposite of reality.

So, irony has two pillars that stand side-by-side: (1) someone knows something that the other doesn't (that is a SECRET), AND (2) expectation (or implication, subtext, etc.) is opposite of reality.

Each STORYLINE, SETTING, CONFLICT, etc, therefore -- to be sufficiently engaging to contribute to the drama must have elements of these "secrets" and "paradoxes."

(BTW: A paradox is an ironic contradiction. A true contradiction has no resolution, the two elements really are opposite. But a paradox is a contradiction wrongly perceived.)

Take D'JANGO as a great example of irony in a recent story. I believe it was the irony of the characters and setting that led the Academy to give the screenplay an Oscar. If you set up the irony in the story's hook sufficiently the dramatic dialogue and situations virtually write themselves, and engage the writer with daily enthusiasm for the grind of writing.

D'JANGO's main characters: A rich, classically educated European dentist partners with a poor, uneducated American slave to bounty hunt street smart but bigoted American white men in the South before the Civil War. I don't care what you expect from that combination, but it's probably going to be different from the story, and you'll be surprised. The audience thinks it knows -- and that's enough, even if they don't -- to make D'JANGO a shoe-in for an Oscar.

Now, I've conceived the conflict of values in D'JANGO to have something to do with "having a good plan" vs. "not having any plan at all" (from the dialogue). In other words: "impulsiveness" vs. "thoughtfulness."

The main characters (Schultz and D'Jango) are even ironic. As D'Jango starts off impulsive he arcs toward thoughtfulness, and as Schultz starts out thoughtful he ends up impulsive. What we expect (and what the writer knows) is the opposite of what happens (and what the audience thinks it knows.)

Now, such twists cannot happen without the plot following some form of natural law and foreshadowing. A writer cannot just pull such irony or a twist out of the air in the middle of the plot. The audience may be surprised by what happens, but on reflection the logic has to hold together.

David M. said...

Thanks a lot for your clarification. I'm now so convinced of the importance of managing irony that I added a "Irony" column in my table listing all the storylines:
Character - Goal - Behavior before - MOG - Behavior after - Irony.
I also use graphic links between cells that should have a temporal relationship.
For this reason, I prefer using Xmind instead of MS Word because of matrix structures of topics + graphical links + notes...
Thank you again for your pedagogy and for sharing your wealth of knowledge.

Stanley D. Williams said...

David, Thanks for your comment, and the mentioning of XMind, which I just looked up on-line. I suggest you also look into Scrivener, which a lot of writers I know use to outline; it also has a build in manuscript generator that allows quick and coordinated movement from outline function to manuscript. I've used many different kinds of software to mind mapping, project management, and outlining. But I'm faced now with a novel with about 20 characters, and some 60 subplots. Two 4'x 8' pieces of Masonite on rollers behind my desk and a tube of Elmer's Repositionable glue are looking mighty attractive, right now.

David M. said...

Yes, I use the wonderfull Scrivener to outline scenes and write manuscript. But for brainstorming and designing story components (step 1-9 here), I'm more effective with Xmind. I can throw ideas and quickly organize them on the screen, making groups more freely than with the Scrivener corkboard (for Windows). The view "matrix" (which is rather a table) of Xmind make simple to create and view all characters subplots in parallel. One advantage of Xmind is the ability to export data in Freemind format and import them in Scrivener. So when the major beats of all the characters are finished, I will export them to Scrivener to detail the scenes.
Physical material is attractive but I did not want to copy all the manualy written post-its in Scrivener or that my children play the game "Destroy the admirable order of dad post-its." :)

David M. said...

I have another question regarding story development process proposed in this blog page and in the book:
- In the book, Step 6 is "determine the protagonist physical obstacles", but I can't find this point in this blog page.

Stanley D. Williams said...

David, the confusion is entirely my fault. I tend to look at things differently year-to-year as my preferences change. Use either sequence as they both will work based on which fits your mood, personality, or the way your brain is wired. The workshop I just gave in Hollywood is yet another take on the process. (I really shouldn't use the definite article "the".)

How you get there isn't as important as what you end up with. So if the obstacles are clear to you include them in your plot outline. If they're not, think of your plot "obstacles" as the character's "weaknesses."

This probably isn't answering your questions. Let me try it another way: The "obstacles in this post are imbedded several places, including: (a) Step 5's Ironic elements, where irony results from the opposition of what's expected and what happens or from the desperate differences between character capabilities and the setting; (b) Step 5's Why should anyone care/viscerally connection, where a normal person's attempts to achieve a lofty goal would meet with typical difficulties; (c) Step 6's the character's moral vice or weaknesses especially as personified and exampled in the extreme by the antagonist and what the antagonist does; (d) Step 6's Who is trying to stop the character from reaching their goal; and again the ironic factors bulleted at the end of Step 6.

Does that rambling help?