I worked at NeXT the summer of 94. I was in the break room with 2 colleagues when Steve Jobs walked in and started making a bagel. We were sitting at a table eating ours when he out of the blue asked us “Who is the most powerful person in the world?” I said Mandela since I had just been there as an international observer for the elections. In his confident fashion he stated “NO!…you are all wrong…the most powerful person in the world is the story teller.” At this point I was thinking to myself “Steve, I love you but there is a fine line between genius and loco..and I think I am witnessing this right now”. Steve continued, “The storyteller sets the vision, values and agenda of an entire generation that is to come and Disney has a monopoly on the storyteller business. You know what? I am tired of that bullshit, I am going to be the next storyteller” and he walked out with his bagel.
PLOT is only the skeleton of any story, a small section within the narrative voice.
TALE is the sequence of events that happen in the order that they occur.
TELING is the sequence of events that happen in the order that they are told.
It’s in your NARRATIVE VOICE that you can play with, to MOLD the plot in a way that would interest the readers.
Plots can be reused but feel completely different because it’s told in two distinct ways. It’s in the narrative voice that you can completely mess up an otherwise good plot or vice versa. You have to use your narrative voice to reveal characters, prove ideas, be subtle, be witty, create beautiful sentences, etc.
In my opinion, the narrative voice, by far, outweighs the plot.
Another brilliant quote I picked up from one of the answers on Quora from Jenny Wang. You can see the full post here. So far, I’m trying to keep dialogue curt and snappy, but allow my narration to draw out in chunks. That’s the direction I’ll like to head as mentioned in my review of The Book Case here. Reading out your own dialogue helps you to know whether you’re going all draggy on it. People talk very snappily in real life, unless they are explaining stuff, which a story should try to keep to a minimum.
The Creative Process
In the beginning, stories are nothing but paper filled with ideas. Your ideas. Everything, from the characters to the story to the dramatic twist comes from your little head. You are the creative master. So why not make things a little easier for your noggin’ and add a little structure to your process.
Why a Matrix
Let’s use characters as an example for now. Anyone who had ever written something probably knows that you never ever just write a story about a boy. Your story of a boy eventually becomes:
The bullied – boy in school – who lost his mother at a younger tender age – and lives with his caring uncle – who wishes the boy will crawl out of his shell one day – to fulfil his fullest potential.
The bullied – boy in school – who loathes his mother for abandoning him – because his uncles hides the truth from him – thus making him think that she is the devil incarnated – which is why he cuts himself and just bit off the tip of Eric’s nose.
He doesn’t even need to be a boy, you can turn him into a girl, or a middle age accountant. The idea here is to identify the key traits of the character and put them down into a interchangeable grid format. In the above examples. the characters can easily be swapped with just a few key words. Boy – Girl, Angry – Sad, Fulfilment – Frustration.
And to do this efficiently, you need some sort of matrix. Here’s an example of a matrix that I have used to build my own characters thus far:
Looks simple doesn’t it? Yet, it still managed to serve multiple purposes:
- It clearly presents to you the choices to transform your character.
- It inspires you by allowing you to randomly mix and match.
- It saves you a lot of rewriting, forgetting and headaches.
- It acts as a database for your old characters if you ever need to reference them.
Using A simple Matrix
You can use very simple ones like the one above, which focuses purely on the characters and let your creative juices filll in the rest. Below are just some examples I just thought of literally 2 minutes ago:
E.g. The Hungry Video Game Nerd opens his fridge and grabs a coke, accidentally brushing against the head of his father. He wouldn’t let him game in peace, so he killed him.
E.g. The Jaded Pregnant Girl is sitting at the abortion clinic… again. All the waiting is making her mad, she has a hot date coming up in a few hours and just wants to get it over and done with.
Going further with the concept, you can even take a well-known, well-referenced character, change enough parts of it, and you get a new character completely unique to you and you alone!
Expanding the matrix
If you’re sort of a OCD freak like me, and would like to creative a more extensive matrix which extends the concept to plot, theme and what-nots, here’s my expanded matrix.
For an extended Matrix, the basic premises should be filled:
- Who? The Main Character + optional major secondary characters or villains
- Why? The Purpose + optional smaller conflict that leads to the big one + optional plot twists.
- Where? The Setting + optional smaller, more intimate start point and bigger end game
- When? Time Frame + Optional jumping to and fros if your story calls for it.
- How? The story of the character moving ahead + logic fail-safes + your gimmick
Of course, none of the above should be compulsory. If anything else, having a few gaps would allow you to get the creative process going. This full blown matrix should really only used for archiving purposes or just to stare at when you’re fresh out of ideas.
The combinations here are endless if you’re looking for zany wacky possibilities.
Jaded – Superhero – who attends a High School Reunion – but feels he has nothing else to live for – meets a WitchDoctor – tell hims he can be someone else in another life – makes him goes back in time to kill his own parents – ending up in a alternate universe of his own doing – but climax and conclusion open for you to fill in.
Will that work? I don’t know. But it is a hell of a original idea as far as I’m concerned, and that’s what counts. From a bunch of old stories I came up with something new, in two minutes by the way. And I only have eight tracks to work with now. Think of the endless possibilities when you fill this up to twenty, forty.
Writing Tools is a series I wish to expand upon in future where I talk about the various resources and processes that budding writers out there can use to better their own creations. Most of this concepts should be easily replicatable and I will present them in the form of my own exercises. If you have any ideas of your own, kindly share them as well, in your own blog or in the comments below!
Update – Practical Exercise Example
Forgot to include a practical example. Here’s how I came up with a story combining 4-5 elements of what I’ve written before into what is more or less 1/2 the material I need for an entire story. Using a Private Eye from an un-uploaded early work regarding a Demon pet, using the old man from The Biodegradable Urn, using Butterfly Lady from the self-titled prompt, using Japanese man from The Immortal Jellyfish and basically borrowed plot lines from everywhere else. I can easily throw in Irish Manager Bob from Pixel Land as a circus ring leader, and the sugar-loving crazy demon imp from my first story (which sadly I will never upload). Maybe borrow a few spiders from Peter’s work as well.
I just picked and matched this in 10 minutes
- Using Dialogue More Effectively (wilsonkhoo.wordpress.com)
- The Two Pillars Of Plot Progression (wilsonkhoo.wordpress.com)
- Lee Child: Write What You Feel (wilsonkhoo.wordpress.com)
OMG! Present tense is ridiculously hard to pull off, I must have written over 5,000 words in the last 5 hours trying to make it sound right. And that’s for like only 1500 words in a second rewrite! I’ve actually edited much more beyond this point, but I am not satisfied with the results in the next section – present tense in a dialogue setting – which is actually Part 2 of the story, For now, please let me know how does a present tense version of the story sounds. To give you a comparison, here is the old one in past tense. Please be brutally honest, I don’t want to waste too much time on present tense if it doesn’t work. Thanks.
EDIT: Reuploaded, rewritten. Mostly to remove long-winded bits and extraneous dialogue.
Alone In The Crowd: Part 1 (Present Tense Rewrite)
I’m alone in here, surrounded by people who use to know me, listening to the idle chatter buzzing all around. The clink of wineglasses punctuates the constant drone, and I can hear gratuitous cheering ever so often, signaling the arrival of another fresh face to the party. People who never keep in touch for fifteen years suddenly behave like old friends, hugging and doling out the high fives, filling the air with the sickening cloy of their pretentious bull.
Sitting in my corner, I roll my eyes at the elaborate facade on display, wondering just how many superlatives they can add to a compliment before it becomes drivel. High school reunion, nostalgia, whatever. The spirit of good cheer takes one look at the toxic dump that is my memory of Glendale High, and dies without even trying. Just as well, since nobody here seems to notice me.
I entertain myself with a beer, watching and waiting for that something bad that inevitably happens at parties like this. Drunks and tight spaces were never a good combination for anything. I’m betting either loudmouth there by the window gets pushed off by a raging drunk, or blondie here in the short skirt ends up with that dickhead leering at her from across the room. Whatever it is, I feel it already. Somewhere in this this room, my latest muse awaits.
“Get lost skank!”
“Shut up whore!”
The music stops. I look up. Two women on the dance floor are in a cat fight. They scream and they scratch, ripping into one another with their manicured nails, apparently over the bemused man in the middle trying to break them up.
The drunken sadists in the room howl for blood. “Fight! Fight! Fight!”
I watch the fight from my little corner, enjoying the spectacle as I feel my arousal building. I always had a thing for bloodsport. Here’s hoping that one of them snatches an eye out. That’ll be a fine way to start the night.
It doesn’t happen. Their friends come and pull them apart kicking and swearing. The music starts up again and small talk continues. It’s as if the fight never happened.
An hour later, I’m still sitting in my corner adding scratches to the table with my keys. The bartender who hands me my fourth beer tells me to stop. This party sucks, and so is this story. I need to find something better. Maybe if I didn’t start the night as a depraved writer in a party full of people ignoring me.
Wait, what’s this?
I see her squeezing her way through the heaving bodies on the dance floor. Perhaps it’s the dim lighting, or perhaps it’s the booze. Whatever it is, it has to be something that makes people do stupid things, since she’s waving to me right now.
“Peter, hey!” she shouts above the music
I shuffle deeper into my little corner, trying hard to ignore the female protagonist making her entrance into my story. I’m not very good at romantic fiction.
“Hey!” she says, walking up and taking the seat beside me.
“Hey,” I reply, what else am I suppose to say?
“Remember me?” she asks in a jingly voice that reminds me of one of those secretaries in Mad Men.
I look her over once and rack my brains. Long brown hair, porcelain skin, white fleshy thigh… If I’ve seen her before, it’s probably part of my private movie collection.
‘Sasha Grey?” I say, trying my luck.
She gives me a bewildered look before breaking into girlish laughter. “Nice try Peter, I’ll take that as a compliment. It’s me Lyla.”
I roll her name on my tongue, finding it unfamiliar.
“You are Peter right?” She says hesitating.
I nod once. It’s been a while since someone has called me Peter. I go by my pen name now, Borris Black. Peter Pendleton just doesn’t inspire the same vibe when you’re trying to sell horror for a living.
“Wow, it is you, how have you been!” she says, flashing a megawatt smile and tucking her luxurious mane behind her ear. “Words out that you’re some fancy writer now eh, must be exciting to see your work in public.”
“A little,” I say, scrunching my eyes as I try to place her name and face again. For the life of me, I cannot recall ever meeting a Lyla.
“You don’t remember me do you?” She says, giggling at my effort. “Braces, black glasses, dorky hair, ninth grade?”
Social protocol dictates that I should have an idea now, or at least pretend to remember while I smile and play along. But since I honestly can’t remember and don’t give a damn about what others think, I shook my head politely. It’s been a while since I’ve thought about my life back when I was a Peter.
“It’s okay,” she says, making a good sport out of being forgotten. “Let’s just start over. Hi, my name is Lyla Fisher, I’m a fashion designer and I’ve just moved back to Glendale. I’ve been living in New York for a while, but I miss my family, so now I’m back. Please to meet you Peter!”
“Borris. Borris Black.” I reply, correcting her. As far as I’m concerned, Peter Pendleton was dead and buried. “I go by my pen name now, please to meet you Lyla.”
We shake hands, which probably makes Lyla my friend now, though I still have no idea what this woman wants from me.
“So Peter… I mean Borris, how’s life,” she asks, getting my name right as she leans in towards me.
“Busy, you know, writing stuff. ”
That was a lie. I actually haven’t written anything of worth in the last eight months, which makes my claims of being a writer pretty dubious. But then again, I am trying.
“What are you writing now?” Lyla asks, twirling her hair with a finger as she takes a half step forward.
“Just started on my second novel, thought it’ll be fun to come over and say hi to the folks, maybe get a few ideas.” I lie again.