Monday, 28 July 2008

To Sum It Up In A Sentence ...

OK … so what elements build up to make a story?

There are probably writers who’d baulk at that question. Then again, there are certainly guidebooks for writers that make it seem like all you have to do is assemble a couple of prefabricated Epiphanies and Inciting Incidents and then Bob’s Your Uncle, you have a story.

Over the next few posts, I’ll talk about a few things common to virtually all stories. I don’t want anyone who is hoping to be a writer to think that these are a set of magic keys that will enable anyone to tell a great story. They aren’t, but they are things to think about. If, when you’re planning or writing a story, you keep what I say in mind, it’ll help you. I hope.

There are only five types of story. Or seven. Or four. Or is it ten?

Types of Stories

Well … I think there’s probably only one type of story. Every story ever written can be summed up in a sentence: ‘someone doesn’t get what they bargained for’. Or, as fellow Doctor Who author Simon Bucher-Jones once put it: ‘Surprise!’.

Basically, every story is about someone encountering something new and the story is about the implications for that someone as they deal with the new thing. It doesn’t have to be a Faustian pact … but most stories have at least some element like that, a deal with the devil where something that seems to give easy satisfaction turns out to have dire consequences. Science fiction is often – not always - about someone living in a world with a new piece of technology. A love story is about someone meeting a new potential lover. A thriller features someone discovering a new plot against their government. Most stories have someone going about their everyday - perhaps slightly too mundane - existence, then being thrust into a far more exciting, dangerous place. It doesn't have to be physical danger (although that certainly helps if you're writing a Doctor Who story) or on a grand scale.

This will either sound deeply profound to you, or such an incredible generalisation that it has no real value.

So … in order to be practical, let’s talk about that ‘someone’.

Every story needs a protagonist. The protagonist is simply the main person whose story we’re following. The person whose story it is. The ‘hero’ … although they don’t have to be heroic or even remotely likeable.

I probably don’t need to give examples of heroes in stories. Often, the author helps you along by naming them in the title. There’s no great mystery who the protagonists of Gulliver’s Travels or Tom Jones or Hamlet or Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire are.

There are multi-protagonist stories – at various times in, say, Pulp Fiction we’re following a different character. Even there, it’s always pretty clear that this is the Vince Vega bit or the Butch bit. There are stories where the protagonist changes from scene to scene, so the term becomes pretty meaningless. A good example of that is the TV series The Wire. Which everyone should watch, because it’s great:

Charlie Brooker on The Wire

In some stories, it’s not always clear who the protagonist is. Who's the hero of The Phantom Menace, for example? The poster makes you think this is Anakin’s story, loyalty has you backing Obi Wan, Qui Gonn’s in the most scenes, and it’s probably Amidala’s ‘story’, in the sense that it’s her world being invaded. Ultimately, the clue’s in the title again, and it’s Darth Sidious. The big reveal of the movie (so big that a lot of people apparently don’t see it) is that every single thing the good guys have done, every victory they have won, has only strengthened Sidious. So it’s no wonder people were confused, particularly when the protagonist of the original trilogy is so clearly defined, central and heroic as Luke Skywalker.

Although, of course, now we’ve seen all six, we know that the protagonist of the whole series is Vader and Luke’s ultimate role is just to be in the right place at the right time to cry out for mercy – Vader had a prophetic dream in Revenge of the Sith that’s about Amidala … but which doesn’t actually come to pass until the very end of Return of the Jedi.

OK … I digress. Anyone can come up with a ‘hero’ for their story. I think, unconsciously or not, a lot of would-be writers think that coming up with the protagonist is a bit like generating a role playing character – you pick their appearance, special skills and so on. It’s the easy part, in a way. It’s also fun. The bane of a lot of SF writing is stories with amazing, colourful, eccentric characters … who then get slotted into rubbish, generic stories.

What’s interesting about Doctor Who is that you’re forced to do things the other way round. For Doctor Who authors the protagonist is – to the first approximation, anyway – always going to be the Doctor. Which means you spend your time trying to come up with silly and thrilling things for him to do, not agonising about what his magic sword is called.

In Doctor Who the companion is often nearly as important. Sometimes – very rarely – they are the protagonist. The protagonist of the episode ‘Rose’, for example is … well, not difficult to guess from the title. Some fans, on first viewing, felt the first episode was a very light Doctor Who story … well, yes it was. It was about Rose meeting the Doctor, not the Doctor fighting Autons.

But most Doctor Who stories have a subplot. A subplot is what it sounds like – basically a secondary storyline that runs alongside the main one. It’s usually there to compare and contrast with the main plot – so in Pride and Prejudice, say, we see what happens to the other sisters. In Doctor Who, the typical story involves the Doctor and companion landing on a planet where there’s a conflict and splitting up. The Doctor ends up with one faction, the companion with another. That way, we see both sides of the conflict. Often the Doctor is off dealing with the cause – the monsters who’ve invaded, say – while the companion is down on the ground and witnesses the effects – the suffering the monsters are inflicting on the native population. It’s a neat way to do things.

It also allows a writer to break up the tone a bit and just ... well, cut away from the main action.

Instead of talking about what makes a protagonist interesting, let’s think about what the protagonist is there in the story for.

Here’s the key sentence of this article, so memorise it:

‘A story is the set of choices its protagonist makes’.

This sounds ridiculously reductive. It is. You can’t really sum up the whole of human literature in a sentence. What you can do, though, is bring clarity to your OWN storytelling if you keep that sentence in mind.

So mull on that a while. In the next post, I’ll give some worked examples.


Kate Orman said...

That was so cool I printed off a copy to keep.

Jaimie said...

‘A story is the set of choices its protagonist makes’.

So when planning your story, a good approach is to think about the definitive choices the protagonist makes?

That's a really interesting idea- especially when approaching Doctor Who stories. Instead of thinking of interesting situations that you can plonk the Doctor and his companion into, flip the idea on it's head and make the Doctor's actions and choices more important, then build the interesting situations around those choices.

Lance Parkin said...

It's a combination - when I come up with a story, I'm throwing all sorts of things in there.

So there's stuff in there about choices - with The Eyeless, a lot of it is about how the Doctor might behave *differently* without a human companion tugging at his sleeve.

There's also simple setting stuff - I wanted to do a story which was a sort of Guns of Navarone one, with the Doctor on a mission to disable a powerful weapon.

I think the interesting part is the interaction - summed up, I guess, by saying you ask 'what would the Doctor do in this situation?'.