I wanted to start this post off with a very specific definition of story by a famous writer. I wrote the quote down last week and have no idea where I put it. I don’t remember enough of it or who said it to track it down online—I tried.
Serves me right for not staying organized.
Always stay organized, always back up your files.
On to the post…
I can’t tell you the number of times a script or outline lands on my desk: five, ten, twenty pages of writing and the story is nowhere to be found… totally, MIA.
People assume if you throw together a bunch of ideas, characters and events you have a story. This is incorrect.
Make sure you have a clear understanding of the following terms and you’ll be writing complete, meaningful stories people actually care about.
Anything can be an idea.
Ideas are a raw, incomplete globs of potentially somethings.
“Dragons.” “Mutants bikers.” “A kid who goes on a fantastical adventure.” are all ideas.
The story concept is the heart or seed of your story. In strict writing terms it is usually defined in a single sentence and often carries an abstract nature.
“The simple boy who becomes king.” = Excalibur.
“Humanity expressed through a cop who assassinates cyborgs.” = Blade Runner
PREMISE and LOGLINES
Premise and loglines are closely related.
In the Working Writer’s Guide to Comics and Graphic Novels, I talk about my fondness of using loglines in all story mediums.
In strict writing terms both are defined in a single sentence.
The premise or logline both take the core story concept and give it a bit more detail, anchoring it in more precise form.
“A young boy, Arthur, uses a mystical sword to unite a divided country and keep malevolent warlords from casting the land into complete chaos.” – Excalibur
“Blacksmith Will Turner teams up with eccentric pirate Captain Jack Sparrow to save his love, the governor’s daughter, from Jack’s former pirate allies, who are now undead.” — Curse of the Black Pearl (elements of cinema)
I’m a proponent of making sure loglines include:
the main character, their goal, the force working against them and the stakes if they fail. Really stand out loglines usually incorporate a sense of irony.
True Story vs. Phantom Story
Most people would laugh at the idea of not knowing what a story is. After all, stories are fundamental to the human experience.
Yet as professional writers, it’s critical that we have a clear grasp of what constitutes a True Story and be able to recognize everything else–which I refer to as Phantom Stories.
So how do you tell if you have a True Story or a Phantom Story”?
A story is experience, vicariously delivered.
It is a transfer of knowledge, understanding and insight.
Like any experience in real life: the more potent the emotion, the more the experience offers us to learn and grow as an individual, the more it allows us to take something from it and add to our own being… the more impact it has on us.
If a story does not contain the elements that provide this, you don’t have a True Story… you have a Phantom Story–superficial fluff, most likely a string of “stuff” (events, characters, settings, etc.) and little or nothing more.
A mere sequence of events, related or otherwise is not a True Story.
Merely taking account of someone’s reality doesn’t produce a True Story.
Do not confuse story and plot.
They are not the same thing.
A story needs to be centered around something.
A story needs a sun. It needs gravity to hold everything else in its universe in place and allow life to flourish.
If we can’t find the similarities and contrasts of the human condition, can’t connect emotionally and most of all, can’t learn and grow through the character’s journey—there simply is no True Story.
True Stories, regardless of their genre, length or any other aspects have some agent of deeper substance within them.
Two fundamental ways to make sure your story has the depth of substance to be a True Story, is to integrate a distinct Master Theme and develop complete, rich Character Arcs.
I talk about both of these elsewhere, so I’m not going to discuss in detail here. If you add nothing else to your story but a Master Theme and full Character Arcs, your story will ascend to a completely different level. I urge you to study up on them and use them in your work.
Plot is the specific events of the story that unfold.
Plot is the execution or expression of the story.
Plot is not the story itself.
A True Story is larger then its plot.
A True Story could be told many different ways. It’s details can be changed around a bit, yet the story, the essence reamins intact. In contrast a plot is set. Changing the details of a plot, creates… a new plot. (Of course most elements of a story are intimately intertwined. You can easily break a story or force a story to change by drastically altering the plot.)
Take the premise we used above:
The simple boy who becomes king.
We all know the plot, the expression of the story:
The boy draws Excalibur. He marries Gwenevyre. Teams up with Merlin. Forms the knights of the round table. And goes on to unite a land and become king of Britannia. A story about justice and morality in a dark age.
Now if the plot changes…
If Arthur wins the sword in a duel. If he decides to only date Gwenevyre. If he chooses another knight over sir Lancelot as his best. The plot has changed, but the story itself remains.
We could showcase this even further by changing the Arthur to Annie. We could make her queen instead of king. We could change Excalibur to a spear and a host of other events and details… and still retain the essence of the True Story.
Still not convinced?
What if I told you I’m working on a sci-fi story where a young alien boy lives on a planet during a great time of conflict between tribes. The boy takes possession of a legendary laser weapon—a weapon no other alien is able to take possession of. One that is prophesied to find its way to the king of the planet. With the help of a magical seer the alien uses the weapon to slay a horrible beast, unite his people and become king of his planet.
I could keep going, but at some point you’re bound to throw your hands up and say something like “Nick, are you doing some sort of alien King Arthur?” The plot has changed, the story has stayed the same.
Right now I’m working on a project where the creator delivered a five page treatment of plot.
- The barbarians and civilized nations are constantly at war.
- Joe, is a civilized solider who defects to the barbarian nation.
- During a huge battle Joe’s brother is killed.
- Joe decides to try and assassinate the barbarian king.
- On… and on.. and on… with absolutely no actual story in sight.
Luckily, I’m on the job, throwing a lasso around that story and pulling it together. Digging out the substance, finding the meaning of what the creator wanted to say and creating a True Story.
True Story creation is so complex… sometimes the most obvious aspects are easily overlooked and confused. Make sure you have a clear understanding of what you’re looking at and exorcise those Phantom Stories. ▪
About the Author —
Nick Macari is a full-time freelance story consultant, developmental editor and writer, working primarily in the independent gaming and comic markets. His first published comic appeared on shelves via Diamond in the late 90’s. Today you can find his comic work on comixology, amazon and in select stores around the U.S. Visit NickMacari.com for social media contacts and news on his latest releases.
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