Writing: Plot, character, theme and conclusion

[This is a first draft.]

“Story revolves around characters, settings and plot.” But then what? How do you write a good story that has impact and sticks? And more basically: how do you create that wretched plot?

In this post

In this post I will try to give some very practical tools, statements and questions to give a different (and hopefully more practical approach) to the most important and most difficult part of story-construction:

  1. Plotting — Creating your story lines and defining your key-scenes and what those key scenes could be.
  2. Character development — Finding out who your characters are, what lives they are living and how your story impacts those lives, but also how they have impact on your story.
  3. Depth — Giving the events in your story a deeper meaning and a deeper impact by working on theme.
  4. Conclusion — Defining the end-result of all actions exposed within your story.

I do this by looking at:

  1. Using themes — To find and define the push that drives your story forward
  2. Approaching plot as a series of lines — Rotating around a center line: your story. Each line is a full life of each of your characters in which a lot of things happen “off stage”. Where they cross and meet, things happen that might be interesting for your story.
  3. Loosening things up — Instead of trying to fit your characters into your plot or trying to follow a certain pattern like “the lonely hero (who will save the world)” or “the quest for [something]”, you put everything in a box and shake things up. Neither plot or the results of that “shaking the box” method are leading. Instead, you try to reconstruct the events that brings things where they are at that point.
  4. Defining the conclusion/result — Your story ends at some point. In this point, things either did or did not happen. At this point things either become clear or muddled. The question is: how do you want that story to end? What is the last thought you want to give your reader before your ways (as writer and reader) part?

Starting from the definitons

A plot is (Wikipedia):

the events that make up a story, particularly as they relate to one another in a pattern, in a sequence, through cause and effect, how the reader views the story, or simply by coincidence. 

A theme is (Wikipedia):

(In contemporary literary studies) the central topic a text treats.

A character is (Wikipedia):

a person in a narrative work of arts […] Character, particularly when enacted by an actor in the theatre or cinema, involves “the illusion of being a human person”. In literature, characters guide readers through their stories, helping them to understand plots and ponder themes.

A conclusion (or “Result”, Wikipedia) is:

the final consequence of a sequence of actions or events expressed qualitatively or quantitatively. Possible results include advantage, disadvantage, gain, injury, loss, value and victory. There may be a range of possible outcomes associated with an event depending on the point of view, historical distance or relevance. 

Notice the passive tense in each. What are we supposed to do with these definitions? How will they ever help us to write better?

On plotting

Some schools of thought on writing assume that “you always create a plot before you write”. Until 2009 I got hopelessly stuck in this ‘Plot Centric Approach’. Plotting felt to me like kicking a dead dog, hoping it would come back to life. There was no reward. There was no fun in plotting. Here is why:

  1. Unformed characters — Each time I started, I had no clue who my characters were yet. What did they want? How? Where? When?
  2. Lack of originality — Looking at the body of writing already produced, everything you can imagine has been done before. Love stories. War stories. Hate stories. Exploration-stories.
  3. Feeling of artificiality — Each time I started plotting I soon quit “because it did not feel real“.

My second trouble with plot was: “Who / what is it that defines those events?” Is it:

  1. Me? — The writer: wanting to write something and forcing all the events in that story through that path?
  2. My favorite story or writer? — Describing a chain of events I liked so much as a concept that I want to re-tell it in my own way?
  3. My characters? — In the actions they perform, the things they want.
  4. My themes? — In what they mean to me and how I like to explore them?

Turning things around

Here is how I turned things around to create a more natural way to write (for myself). If it feels like a formula: it is. Like with music, the mind prefers certain patterns in story more than others.

  1. Start with a theme — Or: “this is what I want to talk about”, and exploring that. For instance in:
    1. Exposure — What exactly do I want to expore and expose?
    2. Ways to expose — How do I want to do that? Via the characters? The story world? A set of events?
  2. Define the possible conclusion — Separated in three sections:
    1. Possible concrete result — What is gained? Lost? Achieved? Still open? What possible conclusions can be drawn?
    2. Emotion — What kind of emotion do I want to leave behind when the reader and I part in the last sentence? What set of emotions are the last I want to evoke or amplify?
    3. Emotional impact — How mild or intense would I like these emotions to be? Should it cut like a knife or be as gentle as a lover’s hand?
  3. Construct some characters — Once my theme (or themes) were defined, who would play a role in that story? Would they be male, female, both, neither? Are they poor, rich, upper-class, lower-class, somewhere in the middle? Was their life problematic? Easy? Do people around them love them? Hate them? Respect them? Are they likeable themselves?
  4. Choose some semi-random places — Where would the story take place? Where would I like to be myself in that story? What would that place look and feel like? What would make that place so special, my reader will get some sense of wonder as well?
  5. Conflict — Where is the conflict? What is going wrong  in the lives of my characters or in the story world itself? What do my characters want but do not get or achieve?
  6. Write! — Usually at this point, my story basis would still be very flimsy. Flimsy but sufficient. And with that flimsy start I would start writing some scenes, a chapter her and there, exploring Themes, Characters and Locations.
  7. Structure the story — By the time I am halfway, the story is starting to show several emerging patterns. My characters show certain interests and have certain interactions. Some sort of “meaning” is arising from between the lines. I usually structure by
    1. Theme — What elements can I amplify and pull forward to communicate what I actually want to communicate?
    2. Key scenes — What is (or turned out to be) a key scene in the story?
    3. Cause and effect — What happens before and after these key scenes? How can I land them so that when the reader reaches that point, the events are actually emotionally moving?
    4. Using the “law of three” — Stating that “three is a magical number” and to land a specific scene you need to introduce it (or hint to it) at least two times, making the actual key event the third.
  8. Add, finalize and edit — Once things connect I can add parts, remove other parts, rewrite yet other parts. I can repeat this until the story itself feels solid, inconsistencies, plot holes and dead branches are removed, my themes are properly represented as the story develops and it achieves the effect on me and my readers I intended from the beginning.

[1]

This approach still seems quite superficial. And it is. It has its limits and when I will look back on my stories from this period in my writing I will be able to point out exactly what went wrong in the process as I read those parts and bits.

What is more important is this: it works. I write. I produce stories which are worth writing and worth reading.

[1] Naturally story is much more than this. For instance: I did not mention layering, where one single event can have two or more different meanings and provoking different (sometimes intense) emotional responses on the reader each time he/she reads that scene. For instance: making him/her laugh the first time, cry the second time and angry the third while the words in the story have not changed what so ever. The only change is that he/she got (or understood) something about that situation or that event he/she did not that first (or second) time within the context of the story and the subtext that created the scenes.

This can be done better

Still: things can be done better.

By taking shortcuts I am already falling into repetition in the 12 odd stories and roughly 300,000 words I write from 2010 to 2013. Via these shortcuts I limit my possible range. I always use the same or similar voice and the same or similar characters. With slight differences, yes, but they have too many commonalities. More than I like them to have.

While the range of possible choices in anything is “1000” I use about “10” to “20” of each. And I want to reach at least “100” to gain more diversity and more depth in my writing.

Finally: I spend a lot of time afterwards reconstructing things in my stories and finding I could have done more: based on the feedback of my proof readers.

Putting my personal approach in a simplified formula

  1. Define what I want to write about — What triggers me as a person? What stimulates me? What kind of story would I want to write this time?  Summarize this. The key element:
    1. Theme — The subject or subjects I like to approach. This can be the same theme, one specific theme with several sub-themes.
  2. Define the end — What results are gained? What was lost? What emotions would I like to evoke? How hard should it hit?
  3. Build my characters — As individuals, and still disconnected from any possible plot. Who are they? What do they want?
    1. A life — Give them a life.
    2. A history — Give them a history
  4. Construct my world — As an independent environment and still disconnected from my possible plot. What is it like? How does this world and elements of this world help me to expose and reflect my themes? What are nice locations? Where will my story take place?
  5. “Shake the box” — Instead of trying to think what I should use, I use randomness. Where would I like my character to be in chapter 3? Shake the box to see what comes up. Select the most attractive or gruesome place. Place her there.
  6. Connect the dots — Start connecting all the elements:
    1. Consistency — How did my characters meet? How did they end up where they are now? Why is that logical within my story world? How do we see this reflected in the writing? Why do they respond in this specific way? Hoe can we trace that back to their profiles and their past?
    2. Key scenes — How and where do my characters meet? What do they do and say? How is that relevant?
    3. Exposure of my themes — What (out of endless possibilities) are the key moments and key decisions in the lives of my characters that are related to my themes and which I can expose within my key scenes?
  7. Analyze — Here is the main difference related to the previous list. Instead of writing some scenes and construct the first draft of my story, the time has come to analyze:
    1. Where do I repeat myself? — Since I do. What scenes did I use before in other stories? What emotions or decisions or endings did I already work out? Where is that inconsequential? Where do I rather not repeat myself at all?
    2. Where was I lazy? — I am. I take shortcuts. I usually know what these shortcut are as well. Sometimes I do not (and proof readers point them out to me).
    3. What can I do to up the level? — What lazy shortcuts cut out access to richer places to play my story? What did I leave out (due to laziness) and what will happen if I add that to my story? This covers i.e:
      1. Character descriptions
      2. Interactions between people and between people and the story world
      3. Descriptions of buildings, places, characters and the way I display emotions
      4. Choice and personal investment in the themes and questions around those themes. In short:
        1. Do I care enough?
        2. Would I care even more if I would dig deeper or somewhere else?
  8. Repeat — Based on the analysis I repeat all the steps up and until the analysis, until I feel I get the most out of things. 

While reduced and simplified, this is already a stronger starting point than “jotting some things down, define some key moments and themes, start writing and see where you end”.

Finding a better way to construct  “plot”

Combining lines

Combining lines

A different take on plot and plot lines

I wrote earlier about Plot and foreshadowing and above you find one of the images I used in that post. Let’s zoom deeper into this specific image:

  1. Each line is a (person with a) story — Or a chain of events set in motion by several people.
  2. Most of those stories happen off-stage — They happen, but we only see parts of them. Hear references, see the aftermath or the beginning. An example: you leave the house in the morning. You come back. Your brother is upset. Your mother is angry and something indicates there already has been a fight going on between the two.
  3. You select what suits you (and your story) most — YOU are the one who select the moments where those lines cross the middle-line. Is it before, after or during a specific conflict? Is that a big event? A small one? What will you leave out? What do you keep in?

Plotting becomes easier when you become the observer

This approach to plot places you in the role of the observer instead of the mover/creator. Where you might have felt that you “have to move / push your character through a set of events” before (leading to questionable results), now you simply sit back, place characters in certain situations and watch them live their lives and deal with those new challenges as if they are real people. And when things start to become interesting you start your imaginary camera and start recording each specific detail for writing purposes.

Using this approach, plotting has become a lot easier for me. Plotting has become: “having access to an endless wealth of events I can freely choose from.” And naturally I choose the events which suit my story and my purpose the most. But my characters do most of the work.

I no longer try to bend them in specific directions “because the plot requires them to do this and that”.

As a result my stories feel much more natural to write and read back. They feel less contrived. Things simply happen and since I observe my characters (instead of pushing them) their responses are much more natural as well: giving you (the reader) the feeling these characters could be real people with real lives.

Theme: the impulse of your story-movements

Remember the passive definition of the term “Theme”? Let’s revise that definition here and use something that is a bit more practical.

A theme is what:

  1. Pushes your story forward — Like a motor, fueled by the questions you ask about that theme.
  2. Gives a deeper meaning to the events in your story. For instance: “violence”. What is the meaning of violence? What consequences does violence have? What forms of violence are there? By taking these simple questions you can turn an otherwise run-of-the mill gangster story into something that can leave a deep and lasing impression on your readers.

In my case, each of my stories hit at least two themes. These themes are usually summarized one single word each. For instance: “I want to write about ‘love’ and ‘happiness’.”

I then explore what I want to do with each of these themes. What do I want to explore? What do I want to expose?

An example of my approach:

  1. Love — In this story I want to explore two aspects of love:
    1. The one where one takes care of another person without requesting or expecting a return.
    2. A hopeless love that will never be answered, but stimulates one of my characters to move outside her comfort-zone and make choices that make her move to a higher stage on “the ladder”
  2. Happiness — In this story I want to explore happiness:
    1. Found in small things, like walking or eating. How is that? How does that show?
    2. The effect of happiness (and the lack of happiness) on my characters actions. How they make choices out of happiness they would normally not make. How they respond differently to their environment and how that environment responds back when my characters are happy (or not) within my story.

If the start of this topic seemed abstract to you, I hope this is becoming a lot more concrete.

The fuel and the rocket driving your story

With these themes I “already have my story”. There is enough material in the questions I can ask myself on each theme to write a novel.

The better my questions, the more fuel I have to push my story and if I am able to hit some really potent stuff in those questions, my stories will fly even faster, probably hitting you like a cannon ball when you stand in the line of fire, leaving that lasting impression that makes talk about it and makes you go back and re-read it several years later.

Story Conclusion

From the themes you can already work towards your conclusion. “What is the consequence of this and that, combined with that?”

As discussed, the conclusion consists of several parts. Let’s look at them in more detail:

  1. Gains and losses — Or “the result”. What came out of alle the actions (of all your characters) that matters for the story and your reader?
    1. What was gained?
    2. What was lost?
    3. What remained unchanged?
    4. What improved?
    5. What became worse?
    6. What remained the same?
  2. Emotion — What emotions do you want to evoke just before you say “goodbye and until later” to your reader? Do you have a lost of human emotions to drive from? (I can recommend “The emotion thesaurus” to broaden the horizon and refine basic emotions in more subtle ones)
    1. With the character — Where is she or he in this aspect
    2. With the story — What kind of impression or feeling do you want your story to end with?
    3. With the reader — What kind of emotion…?
  3. Emotional impact — How deep should your story cut? This impact can be cut up in:
    1. Intensity — Do your want to end it with a smile on the face of your reader, or a burst of laughter from her mouth? Tears? Sadness? And how deep?
    2. Duration — Should the story be finished when it is finished or still creep under the skin of your audience there days later?

Not all stories with a deep emotional intensity leave a long lasting impression. Some stories cut deep on a short term level, but are easily forgotten once read. Others seem not to do much in the beginning (not provoking much of your emotions) but haunt you for days and years later.

The way your story influences your reader is also dependent on his or her relationship with the topic. If that relationship is deep and specific and you know to trigger it in a specific way, your story will probably be “unforgettable” in either a good way (giving new insights, making your reader fall in love with your points of view) or a bad way (rubbing her / him the wrong way and leaving feelings of wasted time and disgust or hate towards what you did.)

Planning this

There is a school of thought that assumes that art “should come from the heart” and that planning things like “emotional impact” is the “death of spontinuity” and/or creativity.

While this is probably true when your skills are still developing and things are still hard, it is not true when you mastered most of the basics of story-telling and feel that your stories (although good) can achieve even more effect with your readers.

In short: use this approach when you feel it is time to use it. Drop it when you feel it kills your creativity. Come back on it when you feel ready again.

  1. Preparing your reader — To gain emotional impact, you need to prepare your reader. Like with telling a joke or watching a tearjerker, you need to get your reader in a certain mood. Like with a joke, that mood is mostly triggered by subliminal messages. Things your reader will overlook on a concious level, but register on a deeper level.
    1.  Atmosphere — By the use of certain words, locations, scene and reactions you create a certain atmosphere that plays into the most basic human emotions of fear, anger, love/endearment and amusement. In horror, the gain is to make you feel uncomfortable. A walk through a dark alley in a Horror story will be done in a different tone and emotional atmosphere then a walk through that same alley in a comedy or a romantic story.
    2. Repetition of elements — By repeating certain elements, you trigger the memory and a “sense of relevance” with your reader. By changing the context you also change the point of view on those elements. By playing with this repetition and a sense of relevance, you can increase the emotional responses of your readers, literally manipulating them to care more and more and more about what you write about this in very specific ways. In all cases you “rotate” the point of view a bit, so that the same thing gets a slightly different meaning each time we look at it. These  elements can be a repetition of:
      1. A certain response to a certain situation in a certain context
      2. A certain event from the Story Past or the Story Present
      3. A certain object (or type of object) that is used in certain situations
      4. A certain person (or type of person) that shows up in certain situations
      5. A certain location (or type of location) with specific elements that will trigger certain emotions.
      6. A certain time (or moment) that has a specific significance (in your story world).
      7. A certain emotion (or type of emotion) that is experienced by one or more characters in the story.
    3. Change of rhythm — Our minds have a strong sense of rhythm. We automatically seek for patterns and repetition. And prefer repetition in which things slightly vary. Change in rhythm, moving from slow to fast or from fast to slow, evoke certain emotions. In most cases we are only aware of these emotions through our body. We start shifting, move restlessly, start scratching our neck or calm down. The emotions triggered by changes in rhythm can be:
      1. Of urgency — When things move from slow to fast, things move in abrupt ways. (Short sentences, more action in less space. Words with immediate urgency. Staccato writing)
      2. Of tranquility — When the rhythm is relatively slow, things move in gentle waves and does not change for a long while. (Longer sentences, more poetic writing, more purple prose
      3. Of unrest and unease — When the rhythm changes irregularly from fast to slow to fast to fast to slow in patterns that seem chaotic, when sentences seem messy and purple prose and ugly words (the way they look ans sound) and staccato writing alternate and are all mixed en messed up together.
      4. Of displeasure — When the mess is so big that the mind simply wants to jump out of the story. Where the sentences are so messy that the story becomes unreadable and unbearable.
  2.  Activation/release of the emotional response — Imagine all the elements described in “Preperation” as a time bomb or spring you wound up until the very moment of “activation” or “release”. Your reader is ready. All elements are set. The only thing you need to do is push that one button. Here is how:
    1. Convergence — Where all separate elements seemed unconnected, you reveal the bigger picture. “A, B and C were  all related. And here is how”. Your separate lines converge and create this deeper emotional impact at that very point where they meet. When done properly, this is the exact moment where your reader will start to laugh, cry, sit straight up in shock, throw your book down and hate you for what you evoked. When done properly you can even create a cascading effect where one shock follows another and another until your reader is wrecked from either laughter, anger or tears.
    2. Triggering a shared experience — The second trigger is the shared experience. Let’s say you love collecting things or have been mistreated for years by your environment. The moment the writer knows how to touch that very emotion related to that experience, something exciting happens inside of you. Leading to a set of emotions that can even overwhelm the reader for a short or longer while. How big hte impact is depends — again — on the preparation the writer made in the pages before.

To get to this point, where your story is not just a story, but a story where a lot of things happen between the lines, triggering emotions within your readers that can even be “unexpected” or “incredibly intense” usually a combination of “feeling” and “knowing”.

The “feeling” part is where you, as the writer, can move through several different emotions and test these emotions with different scenes and situations to see which will gain the maximum or wanted effect at that point in the story.

The “knowing” is a (basic) understanding of how to “hide” these things in the story. To understand how to distract the reader just long enough so that something obvious will pass under the concious radar. This “knowing” uses the exact same principle as magicians do on stage (distracting you so you do not see the obviousness and the boredom of the tricks performed) and comedians when they tell a story or perform an act that will trigger most of the audience into a frenzy of laughter.

This “knowing” includes the knowledge that the preparation towards the punchline is just as important as the delivery of that punchline itself.

What you can achieve

By mastering this aspect of writing, you can create a line of stories of very constant quality that will always hit some spot with your readers. This can be:

  1. Falling in love with one or more of your characters.
  2. Getting scared or upbeat happy from your words and writing.
  3. Wanting to read more of your work, to the point of addiction and desperation.

Why A is not B

As with anything, there is no one single standard. As a writer, you will always write for a very specific audience, whether you want to or not. There will always be people who will:

  1. Love your work. (each and every single word)
  2. Despise your writing (each and every single word)
  3. Will never get what you write or why they should care about what you did (regardless of how hard you will try)
  4. Will get what you try to achieve and still not give a single toot about it.
  5. Will get what you try to achieve and love you forever for doing that

A is not B. What works for one reader will completely fail for another. So what to do?

  1. Develop your own “radar” — Feel what you are doing. Refine the senses with which you feel. Listen to feedback. Try to understand why it failed for that person and worked for another. Try improve what can be improved.
  2. Stay true to yourself — It is possible many people will not “get” what you are doing at that point in time. For instance, because what you write about is something not part of the bigger mind yet. Or simply because you write for a very specific audience with very specific taste. Whatever it is, try to establish who your true audience is at that point in time and write for them and them specifically. Shift if you want or need to, but don’t forget who or what you are doing this for.
  3. Find the right kind of feedback — It is possible you will have to make some effort to find the kind of proof readers that gets what you are doing AND is capable of challenging you to do even better than you do now. Do not give up.

Characters: or the people you observe

The better you know your characters, the more options they give you to surprise you as a writer, surprise me as a reader and to shape your story as it develops.

The main question: Who are they?

To keep things simple I break this up in six parts:

  1. Occupation — What do they do?
  2. Past — Where are they from? What happened? Did they change? Did they grow? Did things get better? Worse? A mix of better and worse? How?
  3. Preferences — What do they like? What makes them go “yeah!” What would they be willing to “yes” to?
  4. Avoidance/resistance/dislikes — What do they hate or dislike? What do they (rather) avoid? What do they resist (in doing and thinking about)?
  5. Stance — What do they believe in? What are their convictions? What do they get passionate about?  What is corruptable? What is unbreakable? Why? How did this show in the past?
  6. Relationships — How do they know each other? Where did they meet? When? How? How was that? How is that now? What changed? What remained the same?

Each of these six parts are giving you the tools to think about the characters and give them lives and motivation.

Story is what happens to your characters as a consequence

Consider in the creation of your characters that “story is something that happens”. In other words: your characters usually do not choose their stories.

While your characters choose to go to a specific place, they do not choose the things that happen to them. While your characters choose to perform specific actions, they do not choose the results from those actions.

Here is why:

  1. Action — Your characters take action. For instance: get out of bed, go to work, do not show up. And yes: “not taking action” is an action as well.
  2. Response — The world around your characters responds to those actions. These responses can be:
    1. A lack of result — For instance: your character wants to achieve something and invests a lot of time, effort or money. “Nothing” happens.
    2. The wanted result — Your character gets what he/she wanted. Maybe after a lot of effort. Maybe immediately: depending on the complexity of things involved.
    3. Chaos — Part of the result is wanted. Part is not. Things are a mess as a result. “The house collapsed but at least I found my book”.
    4. The opposite — Your character wants something, but gets the (total) opposite as a result. “I went in for a raise. I got fired instead”.

Here is why:

  1. There are countless actors in the game — Your character is not alone. When he or she acts, several elements in his or environment will respond and interact. These elements can be:
    1. Other people — With completely different agenda’s, goals, purposes or whatever
    2. Objects and environment — Like walls, doors, water, a river, fire, a chasm, ports and portals, the weather.
    3. Systems of a specific type — Like systems of oppression, liberation, love, hate. Whatever they are (and however you shape them) will influence your characters and the people around them. For instance: a dictatorship uses a system of oppression. Racists use a system of hate. Experienced lovers who went through several relationships can use systems of love.

Larger than life: Archetypes and the cliche

You probably have heard the expression: “characters and their stories have to be larger than life”. The idea behind this expression is that: “nobody is waiting for a mundane story of a mundane person in a mundane world”.

The moment you move to characters “larger than life” you will meet two friends:

  1. The archetype — A generalized description of a specific set of traits addressed to a specific role a person can play. For instance: “the lover” and “the warrior”. The archetype focuses strongly on all aspects of these very specific roles in human society and collects all specific traits a person in such a role could answer to.
  2. The cliche — Is a poverized archetype. While the Archetype says: “The ultimate image of the warrior is defined by the following traits and general behavior” the cliche states: “All warriors are defined by the following traits and behavoirs.”

In the cliche-image of an archetype, the characters only have “one way” to behave. There is hardly any room for a difference. Or different approaches. If there is difference, the alternate version is a new cliche, which again only has a very limited range of behavioral options.

When using the archetypes, you can cherry-pick several aspects of several archetypes and combine them in one single person.

  1. The “ideal” warrior — Of your story can be all of the following: A wonderul lover, a poet, homosexual, mildly mannered, a bigot, totally unaware of his own bigotry, incredibly intelligent and learned, a good spouse or husband and a coward in some situations.
  2. The “ideal” poet — Of your story can be an incredible warrior, a brutal man or woman, filled with love for his or her fellow people (including her enemies) not flinch at murder and cry when a bird dies because it hit the side of the house.

And coming back on my earlier statement: archetypes are not fixed personalities. They are just amplifications of the traits we assign to specific roles.

The confusion about “real” and “realistic” 

It is possible that the moment you move away from the cliche, a part of your audience will drop your work as they perceive the repetition of fixed personalities of the cliche as “real” and “realistic characters” while your work (being incredibly more close to the real world than any cliche will be) is considered (even by critics who should know better) as “unrealistic” and “unconvincing” because your characters do not apply to the standardized images people have become accustomed to through (poorly written and/or popular) mainstream bodies of fiction.

While moving away from the cliche will reduce your audience, it is also increasing your chances of being relevant once the audience has gotten bored by one or another fashion that “dictates” the specific way people behave and respond in that type of stories.

Shaking the box, connecting the dots

I do not know how you normally shape your stories. But imagine the following:

  1. Your story as a box with elements — Unshaped yet, unlimited: characters, events that can take place, places your characters can visit. Entire lives. Entire histories. More things you will never use in your story.
  2. You shake the box — All your elements toss around and get mixed. And if you shale hard enough, they will jump out.
  3. You take a random hand — Of elements. From the box.
  4. You toss that hand full of elements on the floor — And see where they land. How they land. Which elements are closest to each other. Which are farther away.
  5. You take a moment — At this point your story is still unshaped. While all your elements are there and some seem to be “unfit”, this is the “reality” that will shape your story. If some elements are unusable, throw them back. (Also realize that “unusable” elements can move you into a new direction.)
  6. You take your themes — The singular words you wrote down, the short summary of what you want to explore per thee.
  7. You start connecting the elements — Why did this one land over there? What will happen if “A” goes to “B”? How will you bring things together so they make sense again? How will this serve exposing the several aspects of- and viewpoints on your themes?

The closest to real life simulation

This “shake the box” approach is on approach to how life itself usually tend to work. Things happen and usually those events are quite random. Even if there is some higher power at work, reality shows that we have no clue what so ever what the real purpose is.

As for that randomness: people you love might suddenly die. A job that seemed secure might suddenly disappear. Banks that kept your money for thirty years and existed for two hundred, suddenly collapse.

The story you create out of all this, to try and comprehend reality itself, is a reconstruction. It is the best you can do to connect the dots.

In my story-telling: the closer I get to this approach, the more natural those stories become. Things happen to people. They get angry, sad, disappointed, depressed, happy about those events. Sometimes it is clear why those things happen. Sometimes they just do as an act of nature or some higher power (including governments). these events change their lives, their plans, the things they had in mind for their own futures.

How characters and stories get a smell of “realism”

As I already gave my characters a life, a history, preferences, they will respond to those random events in very personal ways. Where one character might panic, another will feel that this is “her moment”: the moment he or she was waiting for.

The seeming randomness of the world around them, the lack of control in the events that happen to them, represent our own reality. Today can be completely different to tomorrow due to a heavy storm that paralyzes public transportation and destroys your garden.

This seeming randomness, this intense complexity of your story world, where things can suddenly change, the way your characters respond to that, all make how “realistic” your characters are to me.

What is crucial here are the following elements:

  1. Is there a build-up? — When things happen out of the blue and continue to happen out of the blue, we tend to move away from your story. Things build up. There are warnings and signs. Certain ways people respond or change in their responses. The sky that starts to turn darker as the day progresses.
  2. Are you consistent? — When your character has a certain behavioral pattern and a certain type of character, is that pattern maintained? Or does he/she acts in complete random ways, just as the writer pleases?
  3. Can we see the elements of progress or change? — When things move and change, can we see that happening in your world and with your characters? Can we pinpoint those moments later when we look back? Can we say: “I saw this and that happening and understand why the story is now moving in this direction”?

Closing

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