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Two New Tools

[1]Throughout my writing career, I’ve always looked for, and at, new and different storytelling tools. I pick them up, try them out, use them for a while, enthuse over them effusively… and then abandon them completely. Why do I abandon them? Because for me, storytelling tools work best when they’re new, and still have that whiff of revelation. Eventually revelation fades, and then it’s time for a new tool.

For example, there was a time in my writing life when everything I needed to know about story could be summed up thus: Story is a character’s arc of change from denial to acceptance of the theme.

It’s the tool I used to discover, develop and test stories, and it always worked a treat – right up until the time it didn’t anymore. Why did it stop working for me? Not because it ceased being true, just because it ceased being new. For me, as a writer and creative practitioner, I constantly need new ways to look at story. It’s a defect, I guess. I also get tired of my favorite flavors of ice cream, so there you go.

Lately I’ve stumbled on a couple of new tools that I’d like to share with you. Each might help you, in its way, close the gap between the story you have and the story you want to have.

The first tool isn’t even a tool, really, just an interesting set of questions:

Whose story is this?

What’s the external need?

What’s the internal need?

What’s at stake?

What’s the mistake?

What’s the learn?

What I love about this tool is how it lets me make something out of nothing just by filling in a few blanks: all the creative reward with no creative risk.

Off the top of my head, I make up this:

Whose story is this? Joe’s.

What’s the external need? To be famous.

What’s the internal need? To be happy.

What’s at stake? Joe’s emotional well-being.

What’s the mistake? Trying to gain happiness through others’ approval.

What’s the learn? That happiness comes from within.

That was easy. That took no effort at all! Suddenly, from out of nowhere, I have a story, a real story with a clear beginning, middle and end. I have a platform upon which to stand to do further development. From this new platform I can easily see or conceive that, hey, Joe is this guy who’s living an anonymous life. He thinks it should be different. He thinks he should be famous, and that fame will make him satisfied, whole and complete. So he tries to get famous, and guess what? It works! Now he’s famous. Only problem is, he’s still not happy. So he turns his back on fame, validates from within and finds true happiness (plus, probably, love) at last. That’s the story in its most basic form, and I got it – found it – not by invoking some highfalutin “magic of creativity,” but just by using a tool.

If you’re not doing anything particularly important with your next five minutes, why not pick up this tool and give it a try? Make up a story using this template. Make up two or three. Note how easily your creativity flows when it’s just a matter of answering questions and filling in blanks. To me, that’s toolcraft at its best: not supplanting creativity, but supporting it with structure.

Is my work done? Of course not. But it’s a start, and it’s something I can trust: a real story, with real story drive. I know where it begins, I know where it ends, and I know the truth that it wants to convey. That’s a lot for a little, and it’s so much better than just jumping randomly into creative development with, uh… a guy’s walking down a street and something happens…

Okay, I promised you two tools. Here’s the other one, yet another way of looking at story: Story is a heightened reflection of the audience’s experience: heightened so that it’s safe; reflective so that it’s meaningful.

Let’s look at young wizard Harry Potter. If you’re not a wizard, his experience is sufficiently removed from your own that you’ll feel safe in engaging with it. That’s the heightened part. But  his youthful insecurity reflects everyone’s. That’s the part that’s meaningful. Therefore, it’s math: heightened reality + emotional resonance = story.

You see this math in play over and over these days in the world of post-modern television. Take a show like Transparent. The heightened reality is those many intense family relationships. Nobody’s family is that fraught, right? But this one is, and because it is, we can think of our own families and our own relationships from the safe remove of watching that uncharacteristically volatile family evolve.

To use this math as a tool, simply ask yourself what’s an emotional truth you’re interested in exploring, and what’s a way of placing that truth at a sufficiently safe remove? Ray Bradbury got to Fahrenheit 451 by placing fear of totalitarianism safely in the future. Just now I took fear of addiction, placed it in the future and arrived at (say this next part in the voice of a “previews of coming attractions” guy): In a time when prohibition is worldwide, he owns the last liquor store on Earth!

Try it yourself. Oh, go on, give it a try. Make up a new story or deconstruct one you’re working on. This might or might not be the tool for you, but how will you know till you try?

More broadly, please use tools. So many writers suffer so greatly under the burden of thwarted creativity, and I swear that it doesn’t have to be that way. When the magic of creativity fails you, it’s so great to have the practice of problem-solving to save you. Plus it’s fun. Fun, fun, fun to use new tools. Yes, they break down and yes, they wear out, but so what? There’s always new tools waiting in the wings, and those ones are fun, too.

It’s the weirdest thing to think about, but at the end of the day it’s true: to set your creativity free, simply tie it to a tool.

What about you? What are your go-to tools for figuring out a story or divining its deeper intent? What favorite tools do you share with your fledgling-writer friends?

About John Vorhaus [2]

John Vorhaus has written seven novels, including Lucy in the Sky, The California Roll, The Albuquerque Turkey and The Texas Twist, plus the Killer Poker series and (with Annie Duke) Decide to Play Great Poker. His books on writing include The Comic Toolbox, How to Write Good and Creativity Rules!