In this series of posts I share with you some of the lessons I learnt from an old friend of mine – Hannah Kodicek. Hannah was a story editor in the film industry -she was story editor on the Oscar-winning film The Counterfeiters and moreover lectured on story structure and other aspects of story-making to people in the movie business. She also occasionally helped out friends with their novels – one being Danny Scheinmann (Random Acts of Heroic Love) and of course me. These posts come from long discussions over mugs of tea, informed by Hannah’s notes, further reading and my experiences.
In last month’s post I talked about how the starting point for any story-making is the relationship between the storyteller and the audience. In this and the next few posts I will expand on that and look at the storyteller’s tools, starting with the overall structure.
What is a story?
Every story we tell is an adaptation. There is a great deal of discussion and several books on the subject of how many basic plots there. Suffice it to say there are a limited number to choose from. For my novel the Mother of Wolves I chose the revenge story form. But every story will be unique because we make choices in telling it – which characters to use, which events to come out of the underlying story world. But even these are adaptations.
The underlying story world
The underlying story world contains the context of your story – its past, present, and future. It also contains the seed(s) of that world’s potential destruction. The main character reflects this world and indeed has within her the seed(s) of her own potential destruction.
This seed, (which is often a lack), upsets the equilibrium of the world and the central character and in so doing initiates and drives the story. As an author I need knowledge both of my character and her world and of the why – why this story, why told by me, why now, i.e. I must plant a seed of potential self-destruction in the story world. I need to know the best way of testing the main character(s) so that I can develop the why.
For example for my novel Mother of Wolves although it is a story about revenge, I was interested in the choices one makes and their consequences.
We need to examine the physical and emotional world of the story – the home of the story.
For this we need to choose the main character(s), and their goal(s), the place, the period, the society, the main source of conflict and opposition. To this we add secondary characters and their goals, secondary sources of conflict and so on, until we have people the world.
For example in Mother of Wolves I chose:
1) to make Lupa, the wife of the King of the Roads, the central character and tell her story
2) to make the story Lupa’s search for revenge and safety for her and her sons
3) to place it in a fantasy landscape along a great river bordered by a forest
4) to set it at in a historical time
5) to create two societies – the tribal world of the People of the Roads and the settled world of the Others,
6) to make both societies patriarchal and prone to politicking and betrayal, additionally Lupa’s People are subject to persecution by the Others.
7) Lupa’s enemies are her husband’s uncle, who plotted his murder, the Newharbour Guards who carried it out and lastly the Rebel general and his army
N.B. There is a whole blog post to come about the issue of the flaw/lack in the home world and the central character when I write about the protagonist/antagonist relationship, but for the time being we’ll stick with story structure.
We unfold what we have developed on to a time-line. This is what Hannah referred to as the “Ur Story”. This normally breaks down naturally in to a three-part structure (more of that in another post).
So for Mother of Wolves I decided to start the story with the murder of Lupa’s husband and end it with the defeat of the rebel army. The three parts are:
- Lupa’s pursuit of revenge against the guards and Uncle and their attempts to kill her
- Lupa’s pursuit of Jo and the decision whether to kill him
- The consequences of that decision with the fight against the rebel army.
There are two important things to note. Firstly as writers we do not need to follow the Ur story timeline when we structure our book or film, we can jump around, move backwards and forwards, whatever is best for the narrative, but the underneath it is the Ur story. And secondly the Ur story, whilst being limited by the timeframe, also can contain relevant history and even future.
I find these concepts of establishing the underlying story world and the Ur story extremely useful when approaching a novel. As a result of working with Hannah, I find that I have a novel’s structure in my head before I ever set pen to paper or rather finger to keyboard. As a general rule I don’t find I need to do major structural reworking at second draft.
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