Tuesday 4 April 2017

Story Theory

I work with story theory a lot. I’m a planner and I establish the spine of the story before I start writing. I instil ideas about how stories work in my students on two of the modules I teach – Intro to Children’s Literature and Writing Novels for Young Adults. I also use it as an editing tool.  If a story isn’t working what’s missing? What isn’t strong enough? 

Many writers say that their stories come from the conflicts between characters. This is where I start anyway. I establish four basic characters: the hero, the friend, the mentor and the enemy. Only the hero has to be a sentient being. The enemy, for example, could be a set of circumstances. The mentor might be a computer programme. I put these elements together and see what happens. I can then get the two line description of my story: Cinders’ life is transformed when she meets the prince, they fall in love and he marries her.
I then flesh it out, along the lines of Robert McKee’s Story:
1.                  hook
2.                  3 or more incidents
3.                  crisis
climax (this is the gap between the crisis and the resolution) 
4.                  resolution
5.                  stasis
I recommend reading the whole book and then going back and reading Chapter 14. 

I’m also quite keen on three other story theories – those of Joseph Campbell, Vladimir Propp and Christopher Vogler. Vogler has in effect adapted Campbell’s ideas for the film industry. Vogler says that it works better if it is slightly skewed.  

Andrew Melrose brings us the idea of plot pyramids and tells us of the relationship between plot and sub-plot.  I’ve refined that even more and suggested that sub-plots are not separate plots but part of the main plot. All plots resolve at the same moment.  Melrose talks of an “Aha moment”.  The prince tries the shoe on Cinders’ foot. Will it fit?  

Christopher Booker tells us that there are only seven stories:
  • Overcoming the Monster
  • Rags to Riches
  • The Quest
  • Voyage and Return
  • Comedy
  • Tragedy
  • Rebirth
I find it useful to decide which mine is and look at that particular shape. Do I have it there? Booker also offers us an overarching shape:
  • Initial phase
  • Opening out
  • Severe – constriction
  • Dark power dominant
  • Reversal and liberation
  (Note that this is in fact very similar to McKee’s story theory and to what I call the Canpbell, Propp, Vogler amalgamated theory)      
Then we have more from the film industry:
  • The three act structure
  • Beat sheets

Even “pansters” – those who don’t plan in advance – might find all this useful as an editing tool.
I recently attend a SCBWI NW meeting and we worked with Vogler’s theory. Even though I’ve worked with this material for years, I had a few new ideas. 

I’ve frequently noticed as an editor and as an academic who marks hundreds of scripts that stories often fail between the crisis point and resolution. We sometimes get melodrama, a damp squib or a deus ex machina.  
Suddenly, though, the other week I saw it. The Ordeal in Vogler’s theory is our crisis point. He then gives us several extra steps to take before the story resolves. And didn’t I then go and see all of this in the BBC’s production of The Worst Witch?

My Intro to Children’s Literature students will be submitting their second assignment soon. They’ll either be producing a story or analysing one critically. Later today I’ll be working on a spread sheet for them that aligns all of these theories. I’ll also make to available to my followers here. Watch this space.   
Meanwhile, recommended reading:                       

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