Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Writing Story #1

Now it’s time to write Story #1.
How you go about this will depend on the type of writer you are. If you are the type who likes to plan out every detail and arrange all your scenes on index cards pinned to a corkboard, go ahead and do that. If you are a pantser, start typing.
Whichever type of writer you are, you should have a plan of the A Story arc for the series, each C Story in the series and the B Stories in the series. You should have characters in a central situation and those characters are different enough in their outlook/personalities to generate conflict.
You need to keep in mind the jobs that Story #1 needs to do. It needs to:
-introduce the main characters
-introduce their central situation
-deliver an interesting C Story
-hint at the A Story
-hint at the coming B Stories or start a B Story
-draw the reader into your fictional world and make them want to keep reading the series

How NOT To Do It
There is a tendency for writers to think something along these lines: “The readers need to be gently coaxed into the story so what better place to start than with a character waking up in the morning? I can describe her morning routine and get the reader to look forward to following her during the day ahead.”
Then the writer will start the story like this:
Alice groaned as her bedside alarm chirped like a demented cricket. She reached over and pushed the button, sighing into the silence that descended on the room. Time to get up. Time to drive across town to the inconspicuous warehouse that served as the headquarters for the Vampire Executioners. She had been a member of the group for nearly two years, after being introduced to it by her friend Enzo.
She climbed out of bed and padded to the bathroom. Standing in the scalding shower, she tenderly touched the bruises that ran along her ribs. The Executioners had tracked down a particularly nasty vamp last night and it had...
We don’t need to follow your character through every minute if the day and instead of telling us all the details, you could show us the character in action. Don’t be afraid to hit the reader with the story. You don’t need to lead them in gently. Show your character in action. Instead of telling us she’s a member of the Vampire Executioners,  let us see her kill a vampire. The other details can come later.
You could start with a woman running for her life down a dark alley, pursued by two men. As she reaches a dead end and fears that the men will have their way with her, they catch up with her and she realizes they aren’t normal men at all; they’re vampires. She fears that her very soul is now endangered but there is nothing she can do as they approach...
Then a figure appears from the shadows, spinning and darting and slashing with a wicked-looking sword that glints in the moonlight. She fights the vampires and as the would-be victim watches, the supernatural creatures are beheaded by the cruel blade. The woman approaches, wiping vamp blood from her sword. She says he name is Alice...
* * *
Don’t be afraid to reveal details gradually. You don’t need to smother the reader with a huge infodump. If you’re story is interesting, the reader will stick with you and let you tell it at your own pace. Hold some things back for later episodes. Don’t reveal your hand too soon.
Think about some of your favourite shows. How did the pilot episode start? With someone waking up in the morning and brushing their teeth, or with action and a character in motion?
Think about your main characters. What is it that they do? Show them doing that thing.
Whether you plan out every scene before you write or just go for it and see what happens (guided by your story arc plans and central situation), you should be able to produce a story that opens your series with a bang and makes the readers want to enter your fictional world and follow your characters through their trials and tribulations.
Good luck!

Sunday, 26 August 2012

The Central Situation

Your series should have a central situation.
This is the situation in which the characters find themselves. It’s why they are who they are and do what they do.
For example, in Miami Vice, the central situation is that Crockett and Tubbs are undercover vice cops in Miami.
Supernatural - Sam and Dean are Hunters who travel across America in search of supernatural beings.
The X Files - Mulder and Scully are FBI agents tasked with investigating paranormal or unusual cases.
The Walking Dead - the characters are trying to survive a zombie apocalypse.

This situation should be one which will generate stories. The most obvious way to do this is to put your characters in a central situation in which they either:
a) willingly face the A and C Story problems as part of their job (i.e. detective and cop stories)
b) unwillingly face the A and C Story problems as part of their survival (i.e. ‘survivor’ stories)
There is an inherent problem with survivor stories. If the characters become too good at survival or reach relative safety, all the conflict will disappear.
This happened in Season Two of The Walking Dead. The group spent most of the season on a farm which was relatively safe from zombies. So the central situation (surviving the zombie apocalypse) was removed and the show became centered on the group’s internal conflicts. As a result, the tension flagged.
If your central situation involves survival, make sure the tension stays ratcheted up. Survival is only interesting if there is a chance of non-survival.
Other ways to make sure your characters face the A and C Stories is to force them to do so by their emotions.
If your series is a Romance or a Drama, the characters may take certain paths into the story arcs because they are compelled to do so by their love or hatred or jealousy of other characters. Think about Desperate Housewives and how many plot arcs came about because one character wanted revenge on another or because a character wanted love, or security, or money.
For more ideas along these lines, watch the new series of Dallas and look at what motivates the main characters. Or watch reruns of series like Dynasty or Dirty Sexy Money.
In the 19th Century, Georges Polti wrote a list of 36 Dramatic Situations. If you’re stuck for ideas when deciding your situations or characters’ motivations, a glance down the list could spark an idea.

1. Supplication
 2. Deliverance
3. Crime Pursued by Vengeance
4. Vengeance Taken for Kindred Upon Kindred
5. Pursuit
6 Disaster
7. Falling Prey to Cruelty or Misfortune
8. Revolt
9. Daring Enterprise
10. Abduction
11. The Enigma
12. Obtaining
13. Enmity of Kinsmen
14. Rivalry of Kinsmen
15. Murderous Adultery
16. Madness
17. Fatal Imprudence
18. Involuntary Crimes of Love
19. Slaying of a Kinsman Unrecognised
20. Self-Sacrifice for an Ideal
21. Self-Sacrifice for Kindred
22. All Sacrificed for Passion
23. Necessity of Sacrificing Loved Ones
24. Rivalry of Superior and Inferior
25. Adultery
26. Crimes of Love
27. Discovery of the Dishonour of a Loved One
28. Obstacles to Love
29. An Enemy Loved
30. Ambition
31. Conflict With a God
32. Mistaken Jealousy
33. Erroneous Judgement
34. Remorse
35. Recovery of a Lost One
36. Loss of Loved Ones

The language may be a little archaic but these situations cover the basic human desires which will drive your characters through your story.
Create a solid central situation and motivate your characters to move through your A,B,and C Story arcs with their own personal agendas and you will have a conflict-driven series.

Now it’s time to start writing...

Saturday, 25 August 2012

Summary Of Arcs

Here's a graphical representation of a 6-story series. Click on the picture for a full-size version.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

TV Guide And The 'C Story'

The C Story is your Monster Of The Week or Case Of The Week. The C Story is 'what this week's episode is about'. Remember, your C Stories will be resolved in each book.

The TV Guide is a great place to see descriptions of C Stories. The description of the C Story is how the Guide draws viewers to shows.

Here are a few exmples from today's listings:

Criminal Minds:
When one half of a serial killer duo commits suicide, the team must identify and find the other killer, who had abducted his next victim.

Rookie Blue:
Andy and Nick cross paths with a powerful drug dealer while investigating a death threat aimed at a priest. Meanwhile, Chris and Swarek argue over what it takes to be a good cop.

New Girl:
Jess babysits Russell's daughter for the weekend and has her first enounter with his ex-wife. Elsewhere, a pregnancy scare sends Cece and Schmidt into a panic, and Nick dates a younger woman.

Here are a few examples of episode descriptions from the first season of Sons of Anarchy

Episode 2:
A new deputy police chief arrives in Charming, and Jax suggests a non-violent way to throw him off Samcro's tail. Meanwhile, Opie is forced to make a difficult decision over his relationship with the Sons when Donna faces financial hardship.

Episode 3:
Samcro members take arms to capture an assailant after the daughter of a prominent Charming family is assaulted. Meanwhile, Tara's ex-boyfriend pays a visit.

Episode 4:
The club head to Nevada to help out a brother club, the Devil's Tribe, after they receive threats from the Mayans. Meanwhile, Tara's ex-boyfriend begins investigating Samcro.

So, you can see that the C Stories are the events that concern your characters in each story.

With A, B, and C stories, you have the making of a series.

Buffy And The 'B Story'

Time to look closer at the B Stories. These are the events that are sparked by the personalities and relationships of your characters. If you can get your B Stories to affect you characters in ways that run into the A Story, or turn into major parts of some of your C Stories, you will give your readers a sense that your series is an organic whole.

Buffy is a good example to use when looking at B Story because the series had quite a few B Stories going on...


Buffy & Angel

Buffy & Riley

Willow & Oz

Willow & Tara

Xander & Cordelia

Xander & Anya

There were more but we'll look at these to get the idea of how B Stories can put some spice into your story.

First of all, Xander's relationships with both Cordelia and Anya had little effect on the series. They were included in the series for comic effect. That is a valid reason to include a B might simply want something to focus on to provide light-hearted relief from your main story, or give the readers a breather or change of pace.

Willow's relationship with Tara served a story purpose. Tara and Willow were Wiccans and when they combined their power, they could cast spells that moved the story providing information (such as the fact that Buffy and Faith had switched bodies in Season 4), or by creating magical items that were needed to resolve C Stories. (such as the magical device that switched Buffy and Faith back to their own bodies). Willow's relationship with Tara also provided conflict in Season 4 when Oz returned and tried to get back with Willow.

Willow's relationship with Oz provided conflict when Willow and Xander had an affair and when Willow discovered that Oz was a werewolf. Oz's wolfish nature caused him to have an affair with a female werewolf, which became the focus of a C Story. The emotional fallout from these events carried over through several episodes.

Telling these secondary B Stories has a useful purpose. It reveals character. It allows you, as a writer, to explore the characters you have created and show the reader how they act in certain situations. It lets you get some strong emotion into your story.

They also allow you to create continuity through the stories in your series. If a reationship begins in story two and continues to story six, it ties your series together.

When your B Story relationships cause major conflict for the main character and entwine with the A Story, you have hit a vein of storytelling gold.

Buffy had a relationship with Riley, who was a member of a clandestine military group called The Initiative. This caused some conflict but unfortunately, Riley was boring and corny and didn't really add anything to the series.  And he could never compete with the main relationship of the series...the relationship that lit a fire under the A Story in Season Three and continued to sparl conflict in Season Four and even ran into a spinoff series....

Buffy and Angel

Buffy meets Angel in series the very first episode...and it isn't long before she falls in love with the dark, brooding vampire with gelled hair. This relationship causes conflict after conflict throughout three series, especially when Angel's gypsy curse is lifted and he loses his soul, reverting to the remorseless killer Angelus. This causes the death of Jenny Calendar and sparks even more conflict.

When you think up your B Story relationships, see if you can get them to kick off conflicts in your series. You'll be glad you did.

Thanks for all the comments you guys are leaving on the blog. I love hearing from you and knowing you are getting something useful out of all this.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Supernatural And The 'A Story' Arc

Let's look more deeply at story arcs, particularly the A Story.
If you're going to write an episodic series, it's a good idea to put in some time before you start writing to plan out your episodes. You my want to keep your 'seasons' short to begin with, especially if this is your first experience of writig a series. Six episodes is a good number to aim's short enough to be an achievable goal but it will have enough substance to give readers plenty of story to read.
If you have analysed a season or two of a TV series (you HAVE been doing your homework, right?), you will have noticed that each season is an A Story arc.
Let's take Supernatural as an example.
Supernatural, created by Eric Kripke, is a series about two brothers, Sam and Dean Winchester, who hunt demons, ghosts and other supernatural dangers. The series uses a Monster Of The Week format, so each episode has a C Story regarding a certain monster that Sam and Dean are hunting for that episode. The B Stories involve Sam and Dean's relationship with each other (their personalities are very different...surprise, surprise), their relationship with their father, and (later) their relationships with other hunters (particularly Bobby Singer) and other main characters in the series (Castiel, Meg, Alesteir, Crowley and others).
Here's how Season One sets up the first arc...
The first episode shows us that Sam and Dean's mother was killed in a supernatural occurence which resulted in the boys living on the road with their father John. As the series starts, we learn that John has gone missing. Dean persuades Sam (who wants to live a quiet life with his girlfriend) to help him search for John. Sam's girlfriend is killed in exactly the same manner as the boys' mother and the two go in search of their father.
So the series is set up. The two main characters will be forced to work together and the task ahead of them isn't a simple will sustain many episodes.
A question is also raised in the viewer's mind regarding the A Story. Why did Sam's girlfriend die in the same manner as his mother?
Now the episodes go into a MOTW format and every now and then we are reminded of the A Story. The season ends when the A Story is resolved and the boys find their father and the demon ("Yellow Eyes") that killed their mother.

Season Two has a new A Story; Sam and Dean are hunting Yellow Eyes. By the end of the season, this arc is resolved as they find Yellow Eyes and kill him. But  in the process (the episodes of the season), Dean had to trade his soul to bring Sam back from death. Dean has one year before a demon collects his soul and takes it to hell.
The Season Three story arc revolves around the boys trying to find a way to prevent Dean from going to hell. (See how the events in Season Two have created the A Story arc in Season Three. This gives a good sense of continuity.) It ends when they fail to kill the demon (Lilith) who holds the contract for Dean's soul. Dean is taken to hell.
In Season Four, the A Story arc concerns Sam and Dean working to prevent Lilith from breaking a number of seals to release Lucifer from his cage. Dean has been brought back from hell by an angel named Castiel so that he can help Sam. In the end of the season, the seals are broken and Lucifer is released.
Season Five has an A Story arc of Sam and Dean trying to prevent the Apocalypse. Lucifer wants to possess Sam and the archangel Michael wants to possess Dean so they can fight it out on Earth and cause mayhem of Biblical proportions. The season ends with Sam throwing himself (possessed by Lucifer) and his half-brother Adam (possessed by Michael) into hell to save the world.
I won't go into Seasons six and seven because they are pretty recent and I don't want to spoil them for anyone who hasn't seen them yet.

So...let's break all that seasonal information down to basics...
Season One: Find missing father
Season Two: Find demon who killed father
Season Three: Find and kill Lilith
Season Four: Stop Lilith from releasing Lucifer
Season Five: Stop Lucifer from starting Armageddon
See how the events of each season lead on from the previous season? Think about this when you plan your own series. Can you see how each of those A Story arcs can support six stories of 15-28k words?
Here are some things to consider for your series:

First, get six pieces of paper. Each piece represents a story (episode) in your series.
Now think of the A Story arc. This will be set up on the first piece of paper and be resolved on the sixth piece of paper. It might be a good idea to start at the end...the resolution of the A Story, since this will be the ultimate goal of your 'season' of six stories. Work out how the A Story is resolved.
Despite the fact that it is resolved, will it spark a second season? How will thechange brought about by resolving the A Story throw the characters into season two?
You will need to think up six Monsters Of The Week. If you are writing, say, a detective series, this will be six Cases Of The Week. These are the C Stories.
Each will last only for the duration of a single story. Put your weekly C Stories in order and write them on the pieces of paper. Note that your last story may be all about the resolution of the A Story arc, in which case you will only need five C Stories because the last episode won't have one.
Now think about how your B Stories are going to develop and where. The more you can tie them in with the A and C stories, the better. Even though you, the writer, are looking at this process with A, B, and C story arcs, you want the result to seem like an organic whole to the reader. Don't let them see the seams or you will bring them out of enjoying your story.
You may want to pin your episode sheets to a corkboard so you can see the overall picture. Write on each sheet how that story contributes to the A Story and which B Stories are explored in that episode.

You should find plenty to keep you busy! Good luck with your planning!

Monday, 20 August 2012

Buffy The Vampire Slayer Season One Set Up

OK. let's talk about a series of episodic stories, specifically Joss Whedon's Buffy The Vampire Slayer. We'll take a look at Season One because if you are going to write a series, you will start by writing a 'Season One'...a group of stories that introduce the main characters and their situation and get the plot rolling. Season One will have an overall arc (we'll call it the A Story) that will take the entire season to be resolved.

It will also have subplots (we'll call these the B stories) that run over multiple stories.

Each story itself will be in MOTW (Monster Of The Week) format and we will call it the C story.

This is a good time to throw out a definition. What we are talking about in this blog is a series of stories, not a serialized novel. A serialized novel is a novel that is released in chunks. What we are talking about is a series where every story (episode) is complete in itself. Every story will have a C story and the C story (the MOTW story) will be resolved in that story. If the difference between a serialized novel and an episodic series isn't clear, leave a comment or email me and I will post more detail on the difference between the two.

So, to summarize....

A Story. Arcs over the entire series. Usually involves the most dangerous enemy to the hero.

B Stories. Arcs over many episodes. Usually sparked by the personalities of the main characters. Possibly romantic entanglements.

C story. The Monster Of The Week. Resolved in each episode. Does not arc.

Buffy The Vampire Slayer by Joss Whedon

Written by: Joss Whedon, Steven S DeKnight, Jane Espenson, David Fury, Drew Goddard, Drew Greenberg, David Greenwalt, Rebecca Rand Kirshner, Marti Noxon and Doug Petrie.

Episode 1 & 2: Welcome to the Hellmouth/The Harvest

Synopsis: Buffy Summers arrives at Sunnydale and we learn that she is The Slayer, a chosen one destined to fight vampires and demons. She meets Giles, (her new Watcher) and Willow and Xander. Through Giles, Buffy learns of a coming Harvest led by a strong vampire called The Master. He is trapped in an extra-diensional space but is working toward his own release.

A Story. The situation with The Master is set up. The Master is the'big bad' and Buffy's fight against him will not be resolved until the last episode of the series.

B Stories. Xander is attracted to Buffy but she is attracted to the mysterious Angel. Willow has been in love with Xander since they knew each other as kids but she has never told him.

C Story. Willow is taken by vampires. Buffy saves her and fights other vampires throughout the episode. At the end of the episode, she kills Luke, a strong vampire minion of The Master.

So here we have everything set up. We know who Buffy and her pals are and what their relationships to each other is. We know about The Master and we have had some Buffy action and fighting to tie up the C Story.

As for the characters, Joss Whedon has set this up so that the characters are all very different in outlook and personalities.

Buffy Summers. Strong, kick-ass vampire slayer.

Willow Rosenberg. Meek and mild bookish girl. (although she arcs in later seasons and changes)

Rupert Giles. Watcher from The Council. Fatherly and protective toward Buffy. Knowledgable in occult matters.

Xander Harris. Joker and clown with a crush on Buffy.

Angel/Angelus. Vampire who works on the side of good due to a gypsy curse that has given him a soul. Loves Buffy.

Cordelia Chase. Spoilt and rich girl. Vapid and opposed to 'geeks'. (Willow, Xander and Buffy)

So you can see that the series is built on fertile soil.

I suggest you watch Buffy and see how the writers create stories from the initial set up. You will see how clues are laid down in certain episodes that will become realized later in the season. (In a later season, a clue is laid down that isn't realized until the following season.)

If Buffy isn't your thing, watch your favorite show with the same analytical eye.

Then think about your own series, get a notebook and think about these things:

What is your A Story?

What are your B Stories?

What are your C stories?

Who is your main character?

Who are your supporting characters and what about their personalities/quirks will drive the B Stories?

What situation are your characters in that will make them interact/work together throughout your series?

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Episodic Storytelling...It's In Your Blood

I could talk about how episodic storytelling goes back to writers like Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins (at least in printed form...oral episodic storytelling goes back way further than that) but instead I want to talk about how everyone in the western world is familiar with his method of story delivery.

Everyone watches TV, right?

A quick glance at the TV listings will reveal that most things we watch...most stories we connect to every day...are told in episodic format. Take a look at the TV Guide or the menu on your TV and look at all those series.

CSI: Miami

Desperate Housewives

Ugly Betty




New Girl

Once Upon A Time

Two Broke Girls

The Big Bang Theory

Yes, even The Big Bang Theory is a story told in episodic form. There are story elements (arcs) that transcend each individual episode, such as Sheldon's feud with Wil Wheaton and Leonard's relationship with Penny.

Every soap opera is a series of stories concerning the same main group of characters (although more may be added later and some may leave). Story arcs take place over many episodes and as some elements of conflict are resolved, others arise to keep the viewer 'hooked'.

The next time you watch your favorite series on TV, use your 'writer's eye' to amalyse the show. Think about how the episode you are currently watching (the 'short story') fits into the series. How do the series arcs manifest in this episode? What is set up in this episode that will be used in later episodes? Is the overall story moved forward by this episode?

Of course, if you are watching a show that is currrently airing for the first time, you may find it difficult to discern story arcs and set ups since you don't know what happens in later episodes.

That's where DVDs come in. If you really want to study how a series of short episodes fit together into a greater whole, purchase a DVD of a season of your favorite show. Now you can watch every episode at your leisure and study how the writers used short stories to tell a larger overall story.

Here are some of my research materials:

I have a variety of genres in my collection because I write in a variety of genres. Find a show that suits your taste and the genre you want to write for your series.

You will probably find that a lot of these series have some common elements:

  • the series concerns a group of people who take on 'cases' in the course of their work. (Supernatural, Criminal Minds, X Files, Miami Vice, CSI, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Angel)
  • ...or a group who are thrown together in some way and must depend on each other for survival (Stargate: Atlantis, Stargate: Universe, The Walking Dead, Lost, Firefly)
  • the characters have conflicting personalities (Supernatural, The Walking Dead, Firefly)
  • ...and/or personal skill sets that compliment each other (Stargate: Atlantis, Stargate: Universe, Firefly, Buffy)
Note how the characters interact with each other and how story arcs are developed from these interactions.

The storyline is set up so that these characters must interact with each other regularly (whether they want to or not).

Next time. we'll take a closer look at these interactions and we'll look in more detail at how a series of short episodes can be used to tell a longer, arcing storyline. We'll look in detail at Season One of Buffy The Vampire Slayer and study details of character and plot.