The Heart of Story - 'At the beginning of every story a promise is made...'


Since this is my first blog, let me introduce myself.  I am Dale Griffiths Stamos.   And I am a writer.  …Sounds like I’m confessing to an addiction, doesn’t it?   Well, maybe I am.   To be a writer, like any other kind of artist, is to be addicted to your art.   It is also to be a soul excavator, to be a little crazy, to stare the odds in the face and persist anyway, but more than anything, it’s to put in the work.   The hard, steady, often inspired, but also intensely thought-out process of crafting a piece of fiction (or non fiction) from beginning to end.

I use the word “craft” purposefully.   Good writing, to be most effective, does not just come from interesting characters, strong dialogue, or vivid descriptions, no matter how well expressed.   Those elements, as important as they are, must be placed within a dramatic story structure driven by powerful internal and external forces of desire and opposition that drive the story to an inevitable conclusion.   Making all of this come together in just the right way is not easy, but it is your job as a writer to make it look easy.   Or rather, to so absorb your reader (or your audience) in the story, that all the structure and technique you used to tell your tale will fall away like so much invisible scaffolding.   But make no mistake, without that scaffolding, you have no story.

I hope, as we go along, to show you that craft is not a dry intellectual process.   Instead it is a living evolving transliteration of ideas, emotions, and deep-felt truths into powerful dramatic form.   It is the use of story technique, which has been around since the beginning of time, to touch the universal in all of us.  Join me on the journey…

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The Five Questions

Please forgive me, readers, for taking so long to post another blog.  I have been busy… well writing and getting produced, (see www.dalegriffithsstamos.com)  so I think I have a good excuse.  I have also been lecturing on story structure to various writing organizations, in particular, the Southern California Writers Association and the Alliance of Los Angeles Playwrights.

In this blog, I would like to address the issue of the five most important questions you need to ask yourself before you start writing your book, play or screenplay.

Early in the prewriting stage, you should ask yourself:

  • Who is my book, play or screenplay about?  In other words, who is the protagonist?
  • What does the protagonist want or need? (consciously or unconsciously)
  • What gets in the protagonist’s way? (antagonistic forces)
  • Does the protagonist succeed or fail? (resolution)
  • How does the protagonist change?

Let’s take each of these in turn:

Who is it about?

Who your story is about, your protagonist, is the character with whom the audience most engages and whose problem they want most to see resolved.  This does not mean the other characters won’t be fully developed, with problems and conflicts of their own, but having a central character is what helps focus the piece both for author and audience.   Think of that character as the voice of your piece.

What does the protagonist want?

The protagonist must have a compelling need that drives him or her throughout the story.  This need is usually established by an inciting incident at the beginning of the book, play or screenplay.    The inciting incident is an event that throws the character out of his or her status quo condition by introducing a problem.   It is the protagonist’s need to resolve this problem that drives the action forward.

The protagonist’s need can either be external or internal, conscious or  unconscious.  Sometimes there is both a conscious need and a conflicting unconscious need operating within the protagonist.  In this case, one need is usually resolved at the expense of the other.

What is in the protagonist’s way?

The obstacles in the protagonist’s path are called antagonistic forces.  These can be a person or persons, a situation, the protagonist’s own inner conflict, an institution, society, even the weather!  The most important thing to remember about antagonistic forces is they have to equal the effort and will put forth by the protagonist, otherwise not enough energy is generated in the piece.  It is also important to remember an antagonist is not always a “bad guy” but simply what thwarts the character’s want or need.  You can write interesting, nuanced pieces where your protagonist and antagonist have equally compelling actions and motivations.  But again, your protagonist is the one we are the most “invested” in.

Does the protagonist succeed or fail?

A question is posed when a story begins:  Will the boy get the girl?, will the man gain fame and fortune?, will the woman overcome her prejudices?  By the end of the story, in the resolution, you must answer the question, with a Yes, or with a No.  Protagonists do not have to succeed for the story to resolve.  Sometimes they will gain something by not getting what they want.

How does the protagonist change?

An essential element of story is that the protagonist, by the end, changes or evolves in some way.  Think of story as a crucible.  Like metal transforms under the application of high heat, so the protagonist transforms through the challenges and obstacles s/he faces in struggling to resolve his or her problem.  Depending on the story, this transformation can be subtle or dramatic, but it must be there.

Although many of these questions will, of course, also evolve during the drafting of your book, play or screenplay,  mapping them out in the prewriting phase helps you establish your story’s bone structure, which will guide you through the entire writing process.   .

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Don’t Rush to the Page or: The Importance of Prewriting

Prewriting constitutes everything you do before you start to “actually” write your novel, play, or memoir.  It is a process of inspiration, exploration, story structuring, and character formation.  It is an interplay between your right and left brain, a dance of questions you ask yourself and different paths you try out and discard until the story emerges in a strong and viable form.  To indulge in yet another metaphor, prewriting is where you allow your work to gestate before being birthed onto the page.  Once on that page, it will “grow” through various drafts.  But the prewriting stage is every bit as important, or perhaps even more important than any of those drafts.  Because it is there the work will take on its DNA, the core elements of story that will guide you through the demanding process ahead.  Without those elements, when you encounter roadblocks along your drafting path, (and you will), randomness is likely to take over, or confusion, or the urge to just throw everything out and start over again.  But if you have done your prewriting properly, the driving forces of character and story will hold firm through any challenge.

When I prewrite, I start with a notebook that is specifically designated for this stage.  I ponder aspects of my story in an open-ended, unedited process I call filling the pages. I ask myself all sorts of “what if” questions, and allow whatever answers that come to flow onto the page.  I write character bios and monologues and scraps of dialogue if I hear them.  These are “musings” no one else but I will see, so I am free to explore in any direction I want.  If I hit dead ends, no problem, I go off in another direction and see where that takes me.  This is the place to do that.   Better here than in draft #3! 

Filling the notebook is one of the ways to open the floodgates to inspiration, to invite in the thoughts below the thoughts – the ones  you didn’t even know you were thinking.

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