STORY CRAFT offers understanding and insight into the tradition, practice and art of Story and storytelling, ranging from the nature of the story writer and why we need and tell stories, to the nuts-and-bolts of story structure and day-to-day writing techniques.
STORY CRAFT is divided into six parts: THINKING STORY, examining the intentions and psychology of Story, plus why human beings are drawn to narrative and fiction; PLOT AND CHARACTER, covering the structural nature of Story, the essential elements of a plot and the building and creation of characters; WRITING SKILLS, addressing areas of Story expertise such as exposition, description, dialogue and sub-text; NARRATIVE DESIGN, examining how the tale is told, who is narrating it and why they’re telling it that mode; ENHANCING THE TALE, understanding the many devices and methods writers have at their disposal in developing a story to its full potential., plus CINEMATIC STORYTELLING, looking at the unique contribution that cinema has made in the way Story can be presented.
Each section is divided up into ‘umbrella’ chapters encompassing key subjects such as First Person Narration, The Inciting Incident, The Human Processing of Story, Turning Points, Story Shapes, Archetypes and so on. These chapter are then spit up into specific headings focusing in detail on topics such as The Red Herring, The Epistolary Tale, Back Story, Symbolism, Catharsis, the ‘MacGuffin’, Meta-fiction, In Medias Res, Ticking Clocks, Escapism, Character Building Blocks and Set-ups and Pay-offs. And it’s here that you’ll find pretty much everything you need to know about understanding and create Story.
STORY CRAFT aims not only to be a practical guide for novelists, playwrights and screenwriters, but also an insight into how a narrative works for all students of Story and the everyday reader or audience. And for this reason STORY CRAFT endeavours to simplify and de-mystify some of the complex jargon that often accompanies narrative theory.
The intention of STORY CRAFT is always to be descriptive rather than prescriptive. Yes, there are Story Rules, and there’s a reason behind every code and conventions, but often too there’s an exception as to why that Story Rule can and should be challenged. And that’s why there are so many quotes from industry professionals and practitioners on every page. Sometimes these can be contradictory, but that’s the point – as Granny says in THE SWIDGERS, ‘Rules are like piecrusts, they’re there to be broken!’
STORY CRAFT is more a curator of ideas about Story than a theorist peddling their model of how a tale should be told. The purpose of STORY CRAFT is to offer an understanding as to method and means, but the how and the why of your particular tale is down to the individual writer and creator. What these notes essentially say is, ‘Look, here are the tools for your tale, but what you build, and the way to build it, well, that’s up to you.’ And as soon those points are decided, well, then it’s time for you to say, “Once upon a Story…”
"It’s not the notes that make music, it’s what the composer turns them into."
Ennio Morricone, film composer
"Plot exists so the character can discover for himself (and in the process revealed to the reader) what he, the character, is really like: plot forces the character to choice and action, transforms him from a static construct to a lifelike human being making choices and paying for them or reaping the rewards."
John Gardner, ON BECOMING A NOVELIST (1983)
PLOT AND CHARACTER is, by its very title, fairly self-explanatory. Its chapters, as you might expect, examine what it takes to create and structure a plot, plus how to develop and design characters. The plot sections look at the essential requirements of a plot, namely the catalyst event, the inciting incident, causality, action/plan, protagonist/antagonist plus crisis and climax. There are also chapters on open and closed endings, anti-climax, deus ex machina and resolutions. The making of character chapters considers, traits, habits, attitudes, status, duality, archetypes, and the four levels of conflict in developing a character. But there are questions too, and the big one is: Which takes priority, plot or character?
"Whereas life separates meaning from emotion, art unites them. Story is an instrument by which you create such epiphanies at will, the phenomenon known as aesthetic emotion... Life on its own, without art to shape it, leaves you in confusion and chaos, but aesthetic emotion harmonises what you know with what you feel to give you a heightened awareness and a sureness of your place in reality."
Robert McKee, STORY: SUBSTANCE, STRUCTURE, STYLE, AND THE PRINCIPLES OF SCREENWRITING
THINKING STORY concentrates on what you may consider as the more philosophical and thought provoking aspects of Story. There are chapters covering the psychology of the writer, why human beings need stories, plus the various intentions and purposes of Story. Included in this last topic are several specific chapters on laughter, which is perhaps the most neglected aspect of why we enjoy stories.
"He who combines the useful and the pleasing wins out by both instructing and delighting the reader. That is the sort of book that will make money for the publisher, cross the seas, and extend the fame of the author."
Horace, EPISTOLAS AD PISONES DE ARS POETICA, c.19BC
WRITING SKILLS covers the expertise and skill side of Story, looking specifically at the craft of exposition, the use of language, description and speech patterns, plus ways of creating dialogue and sub-text. These aspects of STORY CRAFT are what you could call the ‘hidden plumping’ of a narrative in that they deal with what’s happening underneath your story. It’s true that writing creatively and imaginatively are often seen as God given talents, but the know-how side of writing can certainly be learnt and acquired. And it’s on those aspects of STORY CRAFT that WRITING SKILLS focuses.
"When I discover what a play is about, I then type out in a sentence what it is about, pin that sentence to my typewriter, and make sure that everything is now about that."
Edward Dmytryk, screenwriter and director, in his book ON SCREEN WRITING
ENHANCING THE TALE looks at the ways and means of getting a narrative to its fullest dramatic and thematic potential. Many methods are available to the writer. Maybe give your tale a strong opening ‘hook’ to grab attention, or fascinating ‘back story’ to give your protagonist depth. Perhaps as well you could introduce a time limit or ‘clock’. ENHANCING THE TALE considers in detail all these elements of storytelling, plus the imagery and symbolism, the plot ploy of ‘the MacGuffin’, the idea of the ‘dramatic gap’ and the importance of ‘set-ups and pay-offs’. There are sections as well on theme, values and story dynamics.
"Design is a funny word. Some people think design means how it looks. But of course, if you dig deeper, it’s really how it works."
NARRATIVE DESIGN begins by looking look at the differences, similarities and unique aspects of each medium. NARRATIVE DESIGN then goes on to look in detail at narrative voice, objective and subjective narrations, plus story information, covering areas such as dramatic irony, suspense, anticipation and mystery. There are chapters too on time and space, style, verbs tenses and the epistolary tale.
"Varied and optimum camera positioning,
effective change of audience point of view through competent film editing, and the ability to highlight dramatic transition by zeroing in on the reaction, thus affording the viewer a greater opportunity to understand, indentify with, and interpret the attitudes and emotions of the people on the screen rather than just those of the author. ‘Well yes,’ most screenwriters will say, ‘but those are the prerogatives and responsibilities of the film director.’ And so they are – but not necessarily so. I have never known a director who knew it all. The more the writer can concern himself with the cinematic demands of the film, the sooner he will learn to understand, and use to advantage, the tremendous potential of the medium. How then can the quality of films fail to improve?"
Edward Dmytryk, screenwriter and director, in his book ON SCREEN WRITING
The principle idea of CINEMATIC STORYTELLING is that because the technology of ‘moving pictures’ has created an entirely new way of telling stories, it is important for the writer, especially the screenwriter, to have at least a basic understanding of some of the technical aspects of film making in order that they may create a story with, as it were, a visual perspective. There are therefore sections on camera angles, shot composition, re-framing, montage and the role of the editor, and in each case, the focus is on how filmmakers can make use of the workings of the medium itself to tell and enhance the tale.