How to Make Every Story Idea the Best It Can Be — Guest: Jeff Lyons
Some stories tell an engaging tale that’s entertaining but doesn’t necessarily feel deep or significant to our life. Other stories make us feel like we’re changed simply by reading them.
There’s nothing wrong with either type of story. Sometimes we might want to read an entertaining story and don’t care whether we’ve learned anything by the telling. Other times, we want to feel deeply connected to a story or we want something more enlightening.
That’s okay. We’re allowed to have moods and preferences. *smile*
And regardless of stereotypes, we can find stories at either end of this spectrum within every genre. Yes, some romances are “fluffy”—where obstacles are overcome in a straightforward manner without any lessons for our lives—but plenty of others include insights into the human condition. “Fluffy” mysteries, thrillers, and science fiction stories exist too, as well as those with more complexity.
Again, that’s okay. Just as readers are allowed to have preferences, authors are as well. Sometimes we might want to write a “just for fun” story, and other times we might want to write stories with more meaning or depth.
To provide insights on our options, Jeff Lyons is here today to share the difference between meaningful stories and entertaining situations.
(Obviously the latter can also result in successful books, but he’s using those terms to differentiate what makes certain stories more significant.)
He shares five components of stories and compares them to five components of situations. With that knowledge, we’ll have a better understanding of how to make our idea the best it can be—no matter what type it is.
Please welcome Jeff Lyons! *smile*
Stories vs. Situations:
How to Know Your Story Will Work in any Genre
by Jeff Lyons
If I were to ask you, “Do you know what a story is,” you would probably feel a little put out. After all, you’ve probably been writing stories for a long time. In fact, you might even make your living from writing stories. Honestly, he’s asking me that? The cheek!
“Story” is a common term’d art in the world of creative writing—everyone knows what a story is, right? You would think so, but, alas, this is not the case. So don’t be offended by my question, because what we’re about to discuss is something that is not taught in writing classes, MFA programs, or written about in most writing-craft, how-to books.
Knowing how to tell that you have a story, and that it can survive the long story development process from beginning to end, is not some random bit of knowledge you pick up off the grass. It is skill that can be learned, like riding a bike. And once learned, it can lift your storytelling craft to a level of mastery that will save you time, money, and months of frustration writing yourself into literary corners and blind alleys.
To appreciate the power of what I am about to describe, we must first begin with two obvious questions: what do I mean when I use the term “a story,” and if something is not a story, then what is that “something else”?
What Is a Story?
When I ask groups of writers (novelists or screenwriters) to define this most basic storytelling idea, “what is a story,” I get as many definitions as there are people in the room.
The responses are always generic and canned:
- A story is a narrative.
- A story is the sequential beats of what happens in a story.
- A story is your plot.
- A story is what your characters do.
- A story is a narration of events coming to some conclusion.
All of these (and there are many others) have some ring of truth to them, and for the most part suffice when it comes to answering the question “what is a story.” But, none of these definitions define the thing itself in a way that has meaning and significance for storytellers.
So, here is a working definition of a story that captures the essence of the thing:
A story is the combination and interplay of character and plot
that is a metaphor for a human experience
leading to emotional change.
Essentially, what this is saying is that if you are writing something that involves an individual carrying out actions on the page that combine to create a personal experience of emotional change, and that experience conveys some insight into the human condition, then you have a story.
Given this definition, it then follows that a story possesses five identifiable components.
The Five Components of a Story
- A story reveals something about the human condition, or makes a statement about what it means to be human.
- A story tests personal character, over and over, to reveal deeper character.
- A story has subplots that are dramatic and thematic reflections of the journey of the protagonist, and that open windows into character and motivation.
- A story ends in a different emotional space than it began.
- A story is driven by a strong moral component motivating the protagonist through the middle of the story, resulting in dramatically interconnected scene writing.
This list of bullets is not arbitrary, or pulled out of some hat, like a rabbit by a magician. No, these components derive from story structure itself. That’s why they are real and possess the full force of drama (or comedy).
Every story has a structure. If it doesn’t, then it’s not a story, it’s something else.
If you have these five components clearly identified in your writing, then you can have confidence you have a story, and not that “something else.” You can be confident that there is an underlying foundation supporting your writing that will emerge as you write, and that will support your entire writing process.
Understand Those Components to Understand Story Craft
It is beyond the scope of this article to deal with the topic of story structure and its critical role in the story development process (see my book Anatomy of a Premise Line: How to Master Premise and Story Development for Writing Success, Focal Press), but knowing how to identify a story—before you start writing—is invaluable to novelists struggling with any new story idea, or an old idea that is “going nowhere.”
This is the craft skill I alluded to earlier. This is that bit of story wisdom that for some comes automatically, elegantly, without thought—as talent—but that for the rest of us comes as learned craft.
Regardless of how it comes, as a gift from the gods, or as hard-earned mastery, this knowledge can make all the difference between getting lost in the story woods, and writing reams of meandering pages, versus staying focused, directed, and intentional in your writing.
What If Our Story Idea Doesn’t Include Those Components?
What do you do, however, when you write a story only to discover that those five story components are weak, or missing? You love your idea, but don’t want to abandon it.
This is the other side of this story vs. no-story coin. Remember, all stories have a structure. If they don’t, then they’re not stories. They’re something else—that “something else” is a called a situation.
This is, in fact, what most genre writers (horror, police procedural, detective, mystery, romance, etc.) are creating when they think they are writing stories. Situations are parts of stories, they are not stories themselves. But, they can still be compelling, fun, entertaining, and wonderfully engaging.
How can you tell if you have a situation? Like stories, situations have five identifiable components.
The 5 Components of a Situation
- A situation is a problem, puzzle, or predicament with an obvious and direct solution.
- A situation does not reveal character; it mainly tests a character’s problem-solving skills.
- A situation’s plot twists ratchet up the puzzle or mystery (stakes), but rarely open character windows.
- A situation begins and ends in the same emotional space, especially for the protagonist.
- A situation has no, or a very weak, moral component, leading often to episodic writing.
A situation is all about the puzzle, mystery, or problem to be solved. Look at any police procedural TV show, or mystery novel (Agatha Christie, Sherlock Homes, etc.), or most monster movies, they are all about one question:
How quickly and cleverly can the protagonist get out of the pickle they are in and solve the problem?
Let’s take a classic (and my favorite) set-up: the twenty-something kids caught in a cabin in the woods with the monster/slasher/alien outside trying to get in to eat/slash/probe them. The only questions are:
- How many kids are going to be eaten/killed/probed?
- How bloody is it going to get?
- Who will survive?
That’s it. Nobody is going to have a big revelatory moment where they realize they have to change their life to be a better person.
There will be no moments where we get profound insights into the inner workings of the protagonist (assuming there is a main character). And any twists or plot complications will be all about ratcheting up the tension of the problem/puzzle, not pushing characters to some behavioral edge where we see who they really are as people.
The only change in the emotional space will be one of moving from happy-go-lucky (opening), to terror-filled (middle), to relief at surviving (end). In other words, the hero or heroine will end the adventure in the same emotional place inside themselves as they started.
The Most Important Difference: A False Belief
The most important differentiator of all is that there is no, or a very weak, moral component to the situation.
Moral component is a complex topic, again outside the scope of this article, but what it means is that the protagonist is driven from the inside by some basic belief about him-herself, which is essentially wrong, but that is coloring all their actions outside themselves in the story world. They are acting badly, because of this characterological blind spot, and this is what they heal and change in the end.
Every story has this; every situation does not. This one element alone is enough to help you quickly identify a situation from a story.
Does your protagonist have a flaw that is screwing up their lives, that they would have anyway, regardless of the threat of being eaten/killed/probed?
Many Examples Fall Inbetween
There is, however, one gray-area worth mentioning. This is what I call the “basically good person caught in the no-win scenario” scenario.
In the film world, some good examples of this are: Gravity (2013, Warner Bros.), The Martian (2015, Twentieth Century Fox), Taken (2008, EuropaCorp.), Godzilla (2014, Warner Bros.)—there are many others.
These are all situations masquerading as stories, but they fall into this gray area; a little bit story, a little bit situation.
The differentiator that pushes them over the story line into a situation is that the heroes and heroines in all these “stories” are all focused on surviving the problem/disaster/predicament they are facing, not working out some deep-seeded flaw that is mucking up everyone’s lives around them.
They are basically good people, thrust by circumstance (not of their own making) into fighting a losing battle, even though they may win in the end. And this is what saves the story day; we root for them because they are getting crushed and find the will to live, or make some horrible choice that saves others.
They don’t really change, they’ve always been good, and they end the story the same way, just beat up and a bit worse for the wear—but alive. And all of these movies were huge at the box office; great successes financially and with audiences.
Situations Are Not “Bad”
The fact is, movie/TV audiences love situations, and readers love them in fiction. The caveat here is that to be successful on the screen, or in print, situations must overcome their story weaknesses, and this means doing three things:
- be fun,
- be entertaining, and
- be engaging.
They may not have anything to say about the human condition, and the protagonist may just be a leaf on the wind of fate, motivated only by a will to live and not by some twisted moral flaw they have to overcome in the end, but that’s alright as long as the audience has fun, is engaged, and is entertained.
Stories have to do these three things as well, but stories have the advantage of having a compelling human story driving the drama or comedy, on top of being fun, entertaining, and engaging.
But, if you have a situation and you don’t want to let it go, then your responsibility as a writer is to make it the best situation you can make it (from a reader-engagement perspective). Stories are not better than situations, they are simply more complex.
So, write stories that will bring readers to tears, or bust their guts laughing, and teach them what it means to be human along the way; or write a situation that will make them bite off their nails, and scream out loud in excitement, unwilling to stop reading for fear of missing what’s next.
Whichever you choose, do it consciously, be a conscious writer. Learn your craft to know a story from a situation, because when you do, whatever you write will be stronger, and audiences will come back for more.
Jeff Lyons is a published author and screenwriter with more than 25 years’ experience in the film, television and publishing industries as a writer, story development consultant, and editor. He teaches craft-of-story-development classes through Stanford University’s Online Writer’s Studio, and guest lectures through UCLA Extension Writers Program, and is a regular presenter as leading entertainment and publishing industry conferences in the U.S. and the U.K.
He has written for leading industry trade magazines such as Script Magazine, Writer’s Digest Magazine, and The Writer Magazine, and Writing Magazine (UK). His book, Anatomy of a Premise Line: How to Master Premise and Story Development for Writing Success, is published through Focal Press.
Visit him at:
www.jefflyonsbooks.com | Twitter @storygeeks
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Thank you, Jeff! Here on my blog, we’ve talked about story structure, false beliefs, and character arcs a lot, but I like how your different perspective on those elements helps emphasize what they mean to the depth of our stories.
I often say that stories are about change. On some level, situations are about plot-change and stories are about character-change.
Both approaches are valid, and I’m sure we can think of countless successful examples of each. Yet many writing articles focus on character arcs to the extent that plot-focused authors might fear that they’re doomed to fail. So I’m glad to be able to share Jeff’s insights to help explain how they’re different and each supposed to work.
As Jeff said, there’s nothing wrong with writing situations. The point is that no matter what we write, we should do so with intention and purpose to make it as good as it can be. *smile*
Do you understand the difference Jeff is making here between stories and situations? Do you agree or disagree with the distinction? Do you tend to write stories or situations? Does this help you understand how to make your chosen idea better (no matter what form it takes)? Do you have any questions for Jeff?Pin It
Excellent post. I agree with Jeff”s distinction between a situation and a story. I tend to imagine situations and then try to work them into stories, so this post will help me better define what I’m shooting for.
Mike–Thank you for the comment. Glad you enjoyed it. 🙂
Mike: You raise a serious issue about starting with a situation and then working into the story. This is one of the reasons I try to help people figure this story v. situation thing out, because sometimes you just have a situation and there is no story. That’s why it’s important to know the components that make each up, because if you have a situation then just let it be a situation. If you try to force it into being a story then you will fail. Situations are not stories and if you try to turn it into a story reads will know it is not right…they will sense the “forcing” and reject the idea entirely. The thing that is always missing from situaitons (or extremely weak) is the idea of the moral component. This is the golden goose of storytelling. You might think you have a situation, but it ends up a story, but that only happens because you discover you in fact have more than a situation and away you go. It will be natural, you’ll find the moral component, and you will be fine. So, my point here is that writers should not try to make a sow’s ear into a silk purse–it won’t work. Unless you have a moral component for your protagonist and just dont’ see it until later in the development process. If it’s there, it will come out. But, like I said above, situations are fine–they’re great–just make sure they are fun, engaging,… — Read More »
This is an interesting point. Perhaps the situation is the seed that starts everything off. Most stories start with something small (well, they do for me, anyway) and you pick at it asking ‘but why this?’ or ‘why is this character like that?’ until you come up with the character arc – which is the moral component that gives your situation meaning.
Rhoda—I think there’s a lot of truth in that. 🙂 Often it’s the “high concept” that is the trigger. But, that’s one of those writing terms everybody uses and almost no one knows what it really means:) so…. just sayin’. (Maybe that should be a post for next time!)
Wow, great post Jeff. Thank you Jami for the nice introduction. I know it’s been a while since I’ve stopped by. Glad I had the opportunity today. Lot’s of good stuff. And yeah, when you’re a newbie, learning structure can be tough to master. How many passes have I made with my first book? Good news is there’s structure and plot. As one editor said to be, “Story is the Plot.” Ohhh. Then I got it. Duh. Takes some longer than others. But I’m getting there. Thanks Jeff! 🙂
Karen— you’re very welcome. An honor to be invited here.
Excellent post. Am trying to get a handle on stories, structure, and plot, and now I discover situations. Thanks, Jeff. 🙂 I had no idea there were situations, let alone differences between story and situations. I love situation movies (Die Hard, Mission Impossible). Stories (The Notebook, The Longest Ride), not so much. <– plugging for the NC writer hahaha. I guess the Divergent books are stories, with a series of situations? I am going to use your post to catalog every movie and book I like or dislike from now on. “Anatomy of a Premise Line” seems interesting. $30? Ah huh. So what kind of discount are you giving to Jami’s DieHard, and devoted to the Mission Possible learning of better writing blog readers? $15 off coupon somewhere, perhaps? 😀
Donovan–yeah, I know about the price. Publisher did that, not me 🙂 The e-book is half the price… fyi… I wish I could do special deals, but publisher controls all that. Sorry. There are a couple of free ebooks I excerpted from my book that will be helpful… you can get those on my website: jefflyonsbooks.com.
I’m going to re-read the post a few times, but I am grateful for one idea in particular. In some writing courses, the need for the character arc is paramount. The Hero’s Journey is often cited as the universal structure model for all fiction. But this contradicts the series writing of Agatha Christie, Lee Child, Janet Evonovitch, Sue Grafton, etc where the protagonists unchanged and unmoved by the fights, explosions, and sudden death. (In fact, publishers prefer open-ended series with an unchanging protagonist,) Thank you for making the case that ‘situation’ books worse than character based ‘stories, only different.
Robert–Great points. Hero’s Journey is a great structure, but only for mythic stories. People have “universalized” it, but it’s not appropriate for all stories. I love Joseph Campbell… but the monomyth is not applicable for all story forms. Your other point about the unchanging protagonist… is a good observation, but it’s not that protagonists don’t change across a series… they just do it very slowly. 🙂 Think about it, if the hero/heroine changes then the series is over–dramatically speaking. Homer Simpson can’t ever really grow up (change), the minute he does the show is done. But, he can have moments of lucidity where he sees some truth “Doh, I am loved by my family–I’m not a total loser,” “Doh, I really do matter to my friends in Springfield,” etc. Then he goes off and eats a stick of butter wrapped in bacon. We root for him growing up, but it just never happens… but we see glimpses, so we keep coming back. Same in any TV series… slow changes until the last season when everyone finally changes. Book series are the same way. You can’t ever have your protagonist fully change, but they have to make incremental changes over books. But, some series are situations not stories (ie Agatha Christie) or Jessica Fletcher in Murder She Wrote. She will never change because it’s not about her… it’s about the mystery being solved. Not bad or wrong, but all situations, not stories. Protagonists have to change, if they don’t what’s the… — Read More »
Thanks Jeff for a great article.
I believe there are two major plots; the heroic quest, and the mystery.
The heroic quest always changes the character.
The mystery might or might not change them depending on what they discover and what truths are revealed.
Hi Clare–well, I think there are more major plots than that :), but those are certainly two of them. “Plot” in this context seems more related to genre (i.e., genre beats), but I don’t want to split hairs. What a plot is vs. what a plot isn’t is a whole other blog post.
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