Why do stories fail or suck?
- Bad idea — The idea sucks. It is boring or simply does not work
- Poor execution — The execution sucks. It is boring, does not work for the reader / viewer. Scenes are poorly developed. It never surpasses the already worn-out pathways other writers and stories follewed many times before.
In this post I will do something I usually not do: I will illustrate “Idea versus Execution” via an example (that ends in the breaking point, where my story either makes it, or breaks due to my own lack of imagination at that point).
- Bad idea? — There is no such thing as “a bad idea”
- Poor execution — There is such a thing as “poor execution”
- Elements of poor execution — Poor execution can be subdivided into:
- Poor thinking / poor preparation — An idea is not worked out. Hardly any questions are asked to challenge the original idea.
- Lazy borrowing — Instead of working on the idea and solutions to make them work, the writer does (intensive) borrowing from others that used similar ideas before.
- Poor writing — The writing itself is boring, lifeless, static. It has too much explanation, no explanation at all. Conversations are boring or about irrelevant things. Events happen without any proper introduction. There is no coherence or logical chain in the chain of events.
- A stuck mind — Sometimes your mind gets stuck. Where you might have been able to push it just a little bit further, your mind basically says: “
- Poor characters / poor insight — People and organizations and other beings do stuff, but all these actions are really illogical when you think them through. Actions seem to have no consequences. Actors in the story just do stuff and you (as a reader) can clearly see the writer did not think things through.
- Poor research — The writer did not research or did not research properly the events, systems and societies he or she is depicting or basing his/her story on. Things are clearly made up without any knowledge about the tools used or topics or actions described.
- Improving the execution — The execution of a story can be inmproved.
- Better preparation — The main questions in your preparation are “what?” “why?” and “how?”
- What happens / what is happening?
- How is this done?
- Why is this logical?
- How would this happen?
- Why would this happen this way?
- Why not another?
- Feedback — You can improve a lot yourself, but at a certain moment you will run into your own “blind spots”. Things you do not notice or things you think you can get away with. Find a writing buddy or someone who is not afraid to dig deep, ask difficult questions and give you honest and deep feedback. Test your ideas with this person. Have this person read your work.
- Training yourself to dig deeper — Train yourself to dig deeper. To not stop when you find one single option.
- Open your mind / train yourself to ask a different set of questions — The way you look at things defines the number of options you will find. “Where can I find a spoon?” is a totally different question than: “what can I use to stir my coffee?” Both serve the same purpose: “to stir the coffee”. In short: open your mind.
- Branch — You see in the exercise below how I branch each “solution” into further questions, leading to more answers and a more complete picture. The more I branch, the more options I will get to use into my story and to build my story world from.
- Amplify — The amplification process is one where you take one or more ideas and work deliberately on more clarity, stronger images, stronger back stories. A simple element that seems to have no value at first can suddenly become the center of our story.
- Connect — Start connecting elements from one branch to elements from other branches. Many things in the reality around you are connected. The same goes for your story-world.
- Rely on “off screen” events and inventions — The most common beginner-mistake is that the characters presented (have to) solve all questions and problems in the story. “The lover is also the hero and the inventor building the machine nobody else could build to free them from their prison.” It is very much OK of part or a lot of the work has already been done by others. The dragon they escape on or the portal they escape through can easily be created, trained and befriended by someone we will never meet in your story. The more elements and inventions are already part of your story world, the easier it becomes to focus on the story itself. Just make it work.
- Stop dropping in random solutions — Reality often does not collaborate with you. Things break. Things go wrong. Things you hope fore do not suddenly materialize when you need them most. Things take effort. Luck is there, but quite random. If “luck” happens, make sure it is not too much and that you prepare it properly beforehand.
- Be fearless — Don’t inhibit yourself. Let your mind branch and wander. Go for directions that seem riskful at first. Reality is much stranger than most people can come up with anyway.
- Verify your internal logic — Each world has rules and limitations. Make sure they fit, that they are consistent. In a world where everything is possible for anyone, there is hardly any challenge. Rules and limitations help to build your plot. To create conflict / problems / challenges. The more concise your internal logic (of your world) and the more complete your picture is of that world, the easier it is to find the elements that will drive your story.
- Better preparation — The main questions in your preparation are “what?” “why?” and “how?”
Most ideas can be summarized in one or two sentences. Most ideas have been used many times before you did.
The idea itself is mostly a starting point. “What if?”
Let’s start with four random ideas:
- “What if all people have a bar code?”
- “What if some people have magical powers?”
- “What if some people can change into insects?”
- “What if there is some criminal organization that has all power?”
Branching / challenging / elimination
In the branching/challenging/elimination-process, you take an idea and start “branching and challenging” it by asking questions and trying to find answers. The questions are in most cases three: “what?”, “why?” and “how?”
Each answer becomes a new node with which the same process can be repeated until you feel there are enough elements in this aspect of your story-world to pass as “believable”
During this branching/challenging/elimination-process you reduce and eliminate the elements you feel are less useful or do not fit your story. What remains is a set of elements that shape the foundations of your world and your characters: why thing are as they are, how they became like that, why they are relevant, and so on. Below I will go through one such exercise.
The more complete the picture becomes, the more options you have to move your story in certain directions.
Expansion and contraction
On a more meta-level of branching/challenging/elimination, your ideas expand and contract in several cycles which each have a “turning point”.
This turning point is defined by you. As you expand, you need to stop expanding at a certain point, as (with each branch) your elements continue to multiply and the amount of options and new questions continue to increase.
In brief: your goal is to write a story, not to get a complete encyclopedia of your entire story-world.
Once you are done expanding (by branching) you start contracting by selecting those elements you feel are best supporting your story world. You continue to work those out, but focused on reduction: a selection of the best elements of your endless range of possibilities created in the expansion process.
What remains is your Main or a More Developed (story) concept.
You can repeat this process of expansion and contraction endlessly until you found all the answers you need for your story, story world and your characters.
One idea in general is a bit poor to base a story on. You usually combine two or more. (See also the “law of three” here.) We could write a story about a world in which all people have bar codes, some have magical powers and some can change into insects. There is a criminal organization that has all power.
Execution, step 1: challenging the ideas
All of the four ideas have been used before in some or many shapes and forms. And some (like “turning into insects”) seem to be really un-sexy and/or crap.
- Criminal organization — “Criminal organization blah blah” is basically the starting point for most, if not every B-movie with guns and violence.
- Bar code — Really? Why? Why bar codes? Why not a chip? Why not something even more elaborate like reading bio-signatures from the body? And what if that society already has the ultimate surveillance-systems in place? Who would need a bar code then to identify?
- Insects — Why not wolves? Birds? Tigers? What is the benefit of turning into insects?
- Magical powers — Like: what kind? In what kind of world? How is this interesting? What are the limitations? Who / what is helping?
Execution, step 2: Making choices
- Criminal organization — This organization does not use weapons but means of mind-control already present in this world. They have a world-wide network of several subdivisions which trade and deal people, weapons, drugs, medicines and everything else that makes money. They exploit people in poor countries which are brainwashed.
- Bar code — The bar code is like a badge. As this is a perfect surveillance society a visible code is not needed, but it reflects certain social status.
- Insects — There are people who can turn into other animals, but they are not relevant for the story. We will meet them, but we focus on the people who can turn into insects.
- Magical powers — Shape-shifting is one. Mind control another. Transporting good from one place to another yet another. The magical powers are derived from “gods” that act as power stations, like: “you plug into this deity and get your powers”.
From 4 rather “stupid” ideas I would never considered otherwise, I navigated towards something that might turn into a nice story.
Execution, step 3: Focusing more on the internal logic
Until now I just followed random thoughts, wrote them down and tried to make some sense out of them. I kind of succeeded to make something that is not done 100 times before, answers all major questions I could come up with and seems to have some internal logic.
- Magic exists.
- Magic is used to transport goods from one place to another
- How is this done? Do we need people? Or can we invent some kind of “token”? In some magical systems, objects can perform magical acts. What would be logical?
- What are the consequences when many people know how to transport things from A to B using magic?
- The sources of power are “deities” you can “tap into”
- Where do these beings live?
- Are they emprisoned? Free?
- The criminal organization uses magic to control people
- Can you break free from that? How? And is that relevant for our story?
- Do other people and organizations do that as well?
- How? How does that reflect on an already controlled population?
- Will there be conflicts? How do people react to that?
- Bar codes are like badges, showing your “place” in society
- Can bar codes be falsified? Or changed?
- Is that accepted? Or seen as a criminal act?
- If status is linked to bar codes, what kind of society is this? Is status fluid or fixed? What would be more interesting? Can you rise to a certain status and move away from it again?
- People can change into insects.
- How big?
- Only one or also into a swarm?
- What happens with the body-mass of the original person? Is there a way that mass is stored?
- What kind of system is this? Is the body itself an illusion? Is reality an illusion?
- Does mass matter at all?
As you can see, each statement leads to new questions. Each question leads to new statements. Things actually start to look less stupid / idiotic. A world of kinds is starting to emerge, with enough hooks to build several stories from.
Execition, step 4: Choosing direction
Which direction you go is up to you.
- Preferences — What do you like? What kidn of story would you like to tell?
- Plan — What plan do you have with your story? What do/did you want to write?
- Focus — What do you focus on? What is your main story line?
So let’s fill this in:
- Preferences — I like stories with internal conflict as one major element. Also I prefer to write stories reflecting the “now”, either as a social comment or to show alternative ways to do things and solve certain problems.
- Plan — I want to write a story that is action packed. Something supernatural with shape-shifters. The magic was not planned at first, but seems to offer some interesting options with the criminal organization transporting goods all over the place. I want to play with the “warrior” archetype and show a “gentle warrior” less common in current European and American-European literature.
- Focus — I want to focus on the unmantling of power. The rise of the “gentle warrior” to a point where it is unclear if a fall will follow. In this case, “power” is represented in status, oppression and the power the criminal organization has.
Execution, step 5: Last gaps
In this specific exercise we have a lot about the world and we have something about the main character (the “gentle warrior”). But here are the gaps:
- Main conflict — What will drive our story? What is the main plot-line?
- Main characters — Who will play a role in the story? Who do we want to introduce? What will they add?
- Beginning — Where does the story take off?
- Ending — How will it end?
I make some short cuts in the process of (random) ideas and branching into multiple questions and selecting several possible directions, which is repeated again for all elements below:
- Main conflict — Our “gentle warrior” is hired to protect a powerful woman of high status. The second attempt of murder almost succeeds. This woman is one in the criminal organization, living a life that seems non-criminal, but living on the money of crime. She decides to retreat to the place where people work the land to harvest a certain drug. It is one of the more protected areas where she has almost total control. [Added] There, a demon “sleeper cell” awakes to bring down the reign of humans over one of the oppressed god/demons.
- Main characters
- The “gentle warrior”, a female spirit in a male body. She controls magic up to a certain point. She has several more common weapons. She can feel shifts in the “magical currents” to know when danger is ahead. She is able to murder and kill when needed.
- The “Crime boss”, a female spirit in a female body. She is powerful, possesses certain magical powers of control herself. The conflict with other powers, also fighting for control, is what makes her life hard. In another life and another family she would have chosen another occupation. Plight drives her. Training makes that she can make the decisions needed to do what she needs to do. She is someone to fear. She is one to be hated. She is cold due to her responsibilities. She is not inhuman.
- The “assassin”, a neuter capable of shape-shifting in the shape of insects and limited to that form. Programmed to kill it will hunt the “crime boss” anywhere possible. Aimed to free the world of the “crime-boss”, the assassin is the one robbed of all that makes it a free person.
- The “farmer”, a demon spirit in a female body: asleep in this incarnation until being awoken. The aim of the demon spirit is to break the bounds of it’s god and creator. She awakens when the “Crime boss” arrives on the plantage.
- Beginning — The first assasination attempt has just taken place and failed. The assassin is nowhere to be found. We see a world of wealth and money and almost limitless access to anything. In short: we get a taste of power. Next to that, we see how far humanity in this world has reached out to the world and the universe around them. Portals to other places on earth are possible. Portals to the moon and moons of Jupiter have been established. Mining takes place in the solar system.
- Ending — We end in a total contrast with the beginning. All glory has disappeared. All power is gone. Our “crime boss” is thrown back to her human side: the only thing that can safe her from death if and when she is able to touch it. Our “gentle assassin” is fighting in another area close by. Both face death. The god/demon might break free. That is where the story cuts off.
Execution, step 6: Binding the elements
We have the “what” and the “who”. We have several unanswered questions and unused elements. Here is a summary:
- The gods can also be demons.
- These gods / demons are trapped.
- Some are trying to break free. One tries in this story and is triggered by the “crime boss”.
- The world itself is apparently at such level that the solar system is open for mining and other activities. We have interstellar travel.
- We have an assassin, a target and a second assassin: enough for a nice set of conflicts, but also a dangerous trap to fall in.
- The only way of escape for our “Crime boss” is to find her human side again.
The best choice in my case would be to move the assassin-story to the background. It drives the story, but something else, something bigger is taking place. This can be the gods/demons.
Another aspect is the interstellar travel. Part of me is like: What the fuck? To avoid making this a useless element, it might be required to move the stage of the end to one of the moons on which humanity is present.
And who captured the gods? I am not sure I like that part. A story like this could go awfully wrong. Including cliche and moving into a boring direction.
What are my demons like? How does she present herself? And why is it waiting for the “crime boss” to arrive? What makes her so special? And why such a complicated plan (waiting for random events to happen to bring a key-element to a certain place)? Is it a plan? Is that demon the only player in that plan?
Execution, step 6.a: Make or break
This is the point where — in my case — the story will make itself, or break into a thousand pieces I will never be able to fit together properly.
While the elements are interesting enough, the question is if I can really combine them into something that I like to read and write myself?
While the story started to become interesting, my mind either grabbed back on some stupid cliche’s or is not able to break through the new barriers I reached in my story development.
- How do I get away with certain elements?
- What am I overlooking?
- What parts do I really like in what I made up until now?
- What parts make me go “meh”? And why? Is that me? Is that because my imagination lacks? Am I moving too far out of my own comfort-zone? Or am I simply not interested in that kind of stories?
- Should I remove certain elements and grab back to something I feel more confident with, or let it rest for a while and repeat this process (from step 1) with just the elements I can not make work now (interplanetary travel, god/demons)? Is a futuristic world indeed the way to go?
- What can I really show in the first part where everything is possible and wealth is endless? Why and how would that interesting (for me, for the reader, to read about, to write about)?
- There is mention of “male” and “female” spirits living in male and female bodies. Can we expand on this?
Execution, step 7: writing
On writing itself I wrote several posts. it goes too far for thins post to elaborate oin the writing process here.
- Story arcs — You have short and long story arcs. A short arc is one that happens in a single scene. A longer arc is the one happening in a chapter. The “long arc” is the one spanning your entire story. Each arc is usually based on conflict.
- Conflict — Conflicts drive your story. They can be simple conflicts presented in a dialog: “We should go left.” “I disagree.” They can be more complex conflicts, between your character and other people: each having a different agenda colliding and leading to disappointment, anger and other emotions. The more people and events are moving in different directions, the bigger the tension within the conflict becomes.
- Show and tell — you can show and tell things in several ways:
- Dialog — Actors interacting with each other, expressing concerns, sharing ideas and insights, simply responding or giving a sense of direction, time and place. You can use dialog both to show (other) things and tell things (by having actors explain things)
- Action — Action is any form of movement that triggers a response form either your actors or the environment in which those actors move.
- Description — Description is usually separated from action. You, the writer, take a step back and (kind of) summarize what is visible, what is sensed, observed or observable or happening elsewhere.
- “Tell” — One part of “tell” is to reveal the main issues / elements by simply describing them. “John was angry” is “tell”.
- “Show” — One part of “show” is to leave any and all conclusions to the reader. “John smashed his cup on the table and walked away” is one way to “show” Johns emotional state
- Style — Style comprises of many things, including your choice of words and the way you describe and show things. How many words do you use to describe a scene? What tone do you use? Cynical, objective, tongue in cheek?
You will find a lot more here, on “Story bascis”.
But this is not enough.