“Storytelling,” according to Robert McKee in Story, “is the creative demonstration of truth… Event structure is the means by which you first express, then prove your idea…without explanation.” He takes this one step further. “A story well told gives you everything you cannot get from life: meaningful emotional experience.”
Okay. We’ve all read plenty of novels and stories that have failed to give us any kind of “meaningful emotional experience.” For that matter, we’ve written them. We know we’re making things up. We know the story doesn’t ring true emotionally. So what’s the problem?
Subject matter? Neil Gaiman in American Gods invents a character’s name on the page – my name? oh, let’s see, what day is it? Wednesday? Call me Mr. Wednesday – and then allows that character to appear anywhere he’s needed without explanation. How can such obvious fantasizing leads to any sort of “demonstration of truth” capable of leading to “meaningful emotional experience”? Aren’t we a little bit skeptical when Charles Baxter, in order to inject dramatic urgency into an otherwise staid middle class family’s life in “Loyalty,” allows the husband to invite his homeless ex to live under the same roof with the family she abandoned? When Stephen King in 11/22/63 sends his character back in time fifty plus years simply by walking down a certain cellar stairway, isn’t there a side of us that declares: oh, come on…?
Yet, we read these stories. We not only read these stories, we believe in the characters and accept the events they suffer through as “truth,” and not only are we entertained but we come away feeling like we’ve had a “meaningful emotional experience.”
The explanations can be various, but I would agree with McKee and claim that the way we structure events is the first step toward writing stories that take readers on a journey to meaningful emotional truths.
Step one in the pre-planning process should be to come up with a clear, simple “premise.” What is a premise? A premise is an idea that can be posed as a question and that inspires the story and makes it seem urgent. “What would happen if a shark swam into a beach resort and devoured a vacationer?” That’s Jaws. What would happen if you were fresh out of prison and a stranger made you an offer that would solve all your problems in return for a favor? American Gods. What would happen if the woman who was the mother of your child and who walked out on you called from the bus station saying come pick me up? Loyalty. What if you could go back in time and prevent Kennedy’s assassination? 11/22/63.
An inspiring premise is key, but it won’t get the story written. For that you need step two: the “controlling idea.” The controlling idea is the stand-in for “theme” in the planning process. The story presents a strong “value” in the opening set-up. Events in the story cause that “value” to arrive in the story’s climax either positively charged or negatively charged. “Value plus cause expresses the core meaning of the story,” claims McKee. Take Groundhog Day, a story with a positive charge at the climax: “Happiness fills our lives when we learn to love unconditionally.” Or take Loyalty: Loyalty triumphs over past grudges when we learn to forgive. Or 11/22/63: Chaos will destroy the world if we egotistically tamper with the past.
With an inspiring premise and a strong controlling idea you can plan a story that will have a good chance of guiding the reader to a meaningful emotional experience but before you write chapters you still need to consider step three: What “logical assumptions” follow from your premise and controlling idea? Any good story is based on “assumptions” threatened by “counter assumptions.” If a shark swam into a beach resort and devoured a vacationer, then, the town would have to be threatened with economic disaster and there would have to be a local hero in equal parts invested in the resort’s survival and in an opportunity to encounter the shark to overcome self-doubt and to prove self-worth. The counter-assumption: the town was a relic anyway and the shark did everyone a favor; time to cut losses and move on. The story becomes a struggle between these two opposite assumptions.
If you want to get a novel written that will take the reader on a journey to a “meaningful emotional experience,” I suggest you work on your premise, controlling idea, and logical assumptions before you write chapter one.
Let’s say you’ve already written a draft. Your readers are telling you it’s not working for them. What now? Before you spend time re-writing, go back to the pre-planning stage.
Pre-planning will simplify. Pre-planning (even after you’ve written a draft) will take you to the heart of the story.