Recently I was introduced to Olaf Bryan Wielk, story consultant and co-founder of Beemgee.com, the story development tool. Since it is our shared interest, we spoke in depth about storytelling. I’d like to pass on some of his insights to you, broken down here into the following headings:
- The Difference Between Forming a Story and Writing it
- The Problem with Structure Paradigms
- The Emotional Journey of the Audience
- The Two Layers of Stories
- Four Ways of Understanding Characters
The Difference Between Forming a Story and Writing it
If you’re not as yet that familiar with the craft, you might think authors simply sit down and write a story. But most professional novelists, screenwriters, and other storytellers will spend a lot of time developing the story material before they start writing a manuscript or screenplay.
If, for example, you’re writing a crime story, it’s good for you as the author to know “whodunit” before you start writing, so that you can drop cryptic clues right from the first page. How else can you lead a narrative up to that wonderful “aha” moment when in a key scene the audience gains an insight that has been carefully set up beforehand? Foreshadowing is a term authors use. Some people refer to Chekhov’s gun, the effect that if the audience sees a gun in the first act, they kinda know that before the end of the story it will go off, and will be disappointed if it doesn’t. Going back and sorting out such elements of a story after you’ve written a first draft is certainly possible, but re-writing takes time, and professional writers tend not to waste any of that.
The Problem with Structure Paradigms
Merely a little research will lead you to what Olaf calls story paradigms, such as the Hero’s Journey or Save The Cat. While he has deep respect for the analytical work that has gone into such paradigms, Olaf points out a danger if budding authors adhere to such structure “templates” at the expense of thinking about their characters.
The problem is that paradigms tend to focus on narrative structure as a pre-set series of scenes or things that need to happen in the story. This is fine except that the author might while organizing the scenes forget to focus on the character motivations that drive the scenes.
The reason why people like stories is that they can empathize with the problems of the characters and especially their emotional reactions. The audience must grow attached to the characters, have “pity” with them (an insight as old as Aristotle), and care about how they get on. This is best achieved by concentrating on what drives the characters, on who they really are, in particular when they are under pressure.
The Emotional Journey of the Audience
Olaf speaks of the emotional journey of the audience. Two examples of what he is getting at:
Firstly, the audience at the very beginning of the story are not yet emotionally invested. They might be more or less curious, but their heads are working more than their hearts. So the author has to devise something to hook the audience and insert this early in the narrative. It could be something really exciting, like Trinity running across the rooftops in Matrix. Or it could be Paul Newman re-using yesterday’s coffee filter in the opening of Harper, a crime movie from 1966 known well among screenwriters because it is the textbook example of this principle of the emotional hook.
Secondly, the audience yearn to learn. They love the “aha” moment of revelation, the gaining of awareness, finding out the truth of something. This is the real reason why crime fiction is so popular, because it is so directly about uncovering a hidden truth and learning something. The moment you understand that the butler did it, or whoever, is deeply satisfying. But authors of any genre, Olaf argues, should have in mind a specific scene that conveys a fundamental truth to the audience.
The Two Layers of Stories
Another idea that budding authors come across quickly is the difference between “want” and “need”. Olaf explains this concept in great depth and detail. The want, he says, is a surface layer that leads to the plot. The need is a deeper layer that leads to character transformation.
There is a difference between the want and the goal, which is the portal that ostensibly leads to the want. The want is therefore a state of being that supplies the desire thruline that drives the plot while the goal is a specific scene the story heads towards. There are two different types of want, Olaf says, the character-inherent and the problem-incited.
The character lives in an “ordinary” world, which is disturbed by a problem in an “And suddenly …” moment. For Luke Skywalker, this is seeing the image of Princess Leia. Each character has their own inciting incident, Olaf argues. As a result of this problem from out of nowhere (the external problem), the character has a task, sets a goal, and begins performing actions.
But this “want” layer is not enough to engage an audience emotionally.
In order to care about the character, the audience must recognize a need. This refers to a flaw, shortcoming or deficit in the character. It is a problem internal to the character, already there when the story starts, and one that typically results in uncooperative or antisocial behavior. The audience sees what the character really needs, which is to learn to recognize this flaw and overcome it, way before the character does. The moments of revelation are therefore critical, and authors need to work their plot so that it leads the character to such moments.
Four Ways of Understanding Characters
So there is a set of character attributes that have to do with the want (want, goal, task, etc), and another which have to do with the need (internal problem, real need, awareness of this problem, etc).
But that is not all an author thinks about while developing a story. Olaf claims there is a further set of optional character attributes. For example, while it is dramaturgically necessary that the characters want something, it is not absolutely necessary that they have special abilities. Or particular mortal fears. Or well-kept secrets. Authors can use such devices – Harry Potter is magic, Winston Smith in 1984 is afraid of rats even more than Indiana Jones hates snakes, Strider in Lord of the Rings is actually Aragorn. But authors don’t have to.
And then there is all the stuff for characterization. Where is the character from? How intelligent are they or how interested in sex? How tall are they and what color eyes do they have? These extrinsic factors can be useful to make the character come alive for the author as well as the audience.
All in all, a lot of fascinating story stuff that holds true for long-form as well as short-form storytelling. If you have never written a story before, it can seem like a pretty daunting lot to think about before you can actually start writing the first sentence. Thankfully Olaf’s tool Beemgee.com makes it easy and fun for you and provides tons of resources.