Friday, 25 January 2013

Story arcs

I get a lot of people who ask me for advice about story writing or ideas. They will grab me in chat and say they have a great idea for a story. And when I ask what it is, they say something like, ‘Edward breaks Bella’s heart and Paul fixes it.’ Sometimes they use different names.

And I say ‘well, that’s great, but where’s the story?’

It is hard to explain what a story arc is to someone if they haven’t heard of it before. So what I do is ask them what their favourite movie is. One person said Thor. I will admit I rolled my eyes for a second, but then I thought no… that’ll work.

So the story of Thor is:
A father has two sons, one is adopted. Son A is strong and arrogant, so he fights another race to prove his worth to his father. He starts a war. His father throws him out. He has lost everything and wakes to find himself in a strange world. There he finds friends and love. He understands that his brother has betrayed him. He learns humility and sacrifice. That knowledge gives him back his powers. He returns home and saves his father.

Gosh - you think - I've read that story before. Of course, it’s the basic story line of Hercules, too or a dozen other books and movies. In writing circles there is a lot of debate that there are no new stories; just new ways to tell them and movies are a newer way to tell stories.

What I have done with Thor is write a longer version of the ‘pitchable concept’ or logline for the movie. Movies have to sell in 30 second trailers, so they reduce the story to one sentence. Kind of like a book blurb. You've picked up a book and read the summary on the back? It’s the book trailer if you want to think of it like that. With neat new graphics and gifs people are now making book trailers for their books, too. (I still have work to do on my summaries. *makes note to self*)

In this article Marlow talks about pitchable concepts and gives some examples:
A fugitive doctor wrongly convicted of killing his wife struggles to prove his innocence while pursued by a relentless US Marshal. (The Fugitive)

A family struggles to escape a remote island park whose main attractions—genetically restored dinosaurs—have been set loose by a power failure. (Jurassic Park)

He says: “Your concept must have three elements: WHO the story is about, what their GOAL is, and the nature of the OBSTACLE they must overcome to achieve that goal.”

He has written a book about selling your story to Hollywood, but the same things apply to story writing. You can break any story down into elements like this. In fact, it’s a skill that writers need to learn to promote their books. And of course, if you know the basic outline of your story, it’s easier to finish it. You can see the end point. Even if you head off into side roads, you can get it back on track.

All of which I explained to the person who had asked me, and she ran off to write her own story.

Dusts hands off. My work here is done.