All right, so you’ve got this concept that’s built into our language and therefore built into our brains. That’s why there is a definition of story. So why can’t everybody just sit down and be a writer? Well you can. Just let yourself. There’s a little more to it than that, which I’ll tell you in a minute, but basically I think for most of us, our problem is when we sit down to be a writer we get this big capital `W’ in front of that word and we think we have to be Hemingway. Probably you’d all be better off if you would just stand there, tell the story to yourself in a mirror or to someone small enough that you can force them to listen.
We know what the basic unit is, now let’s expand that definition. What it was. When I say what it was what I mean is who or what are we talking about, and what is their situation. What is their status quo? Where are they? What are they doing? What’s normal? What’s going on here if nothing else happened? What happened is something occurs to disrupt that normal status quo. I used to say a problem comes up, and sometimes I used to say a conflict, and then I said, “No, it’s not always that. Sometimes it’s an opportunity.” Something happens though, to kind of rock the boat. So what effects does it have? What develops? What issues are raised? What is at stake? What conflicts arise? What forces are our opposition?
That’s all part of that second piece–what happened. I’ll give you a memory device for this in a minute. How did it come out includes what decides the things that are at stake, the conflicts and so forth. How did that resolve? Once it does resolve, what is the new situation that’s different from the original status quo? And if it isn’t, you haven’t gone anywhere so it’s not a story. Let me give you the expanded definition more simply. A story, and we’re assuming characters here, I mean it could be about a car or something but for ease of discussing this let’s assume they’re characters, a story is the following pieces: you introduce your characters, you establish the status quo, you introduce something which disrupts that status quo–a disruptive element, you develop conflicts, you build suspense, you reach a climax in which the forces in opposition one wins, and then you have a resolution and that is you explain the new status quo.
Okay, how are you going to remember all of that stuff? I’ll tell you what, it’s all in a little poem called Little Miss Muffet.
Little Miss Muffet sat on a tuffet, eating her curds and whey; along came a spider, who sat down beside her and scared poor Miss Muffet away.
It’s all there. It’s a story. Introduce the characters–Little Miss Muffet. Establish a status quo–sat on a tuffet eating her curds and whey. She’s having lunch. Introduce the element which disrupts that–along came a spider. Build suspense–sat down beside her. Now look this thing could be poisonous, you don’t know. It might bite her. Scared poor Miss Muffet–wow, that’s the moment where the situation you’ve created has reached that climax where something’s going to happen now. Scared poor Miss Muffet away. She gets away. If you can remember Little Miss Muffet, you can remember everything you need to know about the basic unit of entertainment which is a story.
Little Miss Muffet–introduce the character. Sat on a tuffet eating her curds and whey–establish the status quo. Along came a spider–introduce the disruptive element. Sat down beside her–build suspense. Scared poor Miss Muffet–climax. Away–resolution. Now you know the basic building block of entertainment. Is that all you need? No. Little Miss Muffet is a story, it fits the basic building block, it is however a lousy story. You don’t know anything about this girl, you don’t know anything about the spider. It gets old pretty quick. But we can make it better.
Tomorrow, I’m going to show you how to make it better and then we’ll discuss some of the craft of being a writer. It’s more than just knowing the building blocks.
Greg, a fun challenge re. Gilligan's Island! 🙂
As a TV writer myself, might I suggest that the status quo of Gilligan's Island is not that they are trapped on an island – that is the setting and situation – but rather what the characters specifically want with each episode?
When a new opportunity presents itself to the island the characters are often confronted with choices that pit their selfish desires with the common good. That is the moment where the status quo is called into question for each character. They may have started wanting a coconut cream pie but perhaps suddenly the Howell's have an opportunity to escape without the others. Conflict and turmoil and hilarity ensues.
And so the change to the status quo for each GI story is how those choices affect each other and leave the characters exposed for what they really are at the end. Then we reboot for each new story.
The physical situation really doesn't have have anything to do with the characters. It is their desires and choices wherein we find the story.
Is there NO possibility that a story could be about the restoration of the original status quo?
Seven castaways are stuck on an island. An obnoxious movie producer comes to the island and, dangling the lure of rescue, forces the castaways to film his movie; then he leaves. The castaways face another day still stuck on the island.
You're right–Ms. Muffet isn't a particuarly engaging story. And if I'm leary of writing something that's less than perfect, I'm even more scared of writing a story that's slick, sophisticated, and soulless.
This is great stuff. Thanks for the wisdom. I want to try writing and drawing comics…valuable stuff. John Byrne wrote the 5 W's on how to draw comics in the letter column of Next Men #4 (15+ years ago). You can read the column at
Thanks for this blog. Great stuff.
The "them" in "Thank you for focusing on them" refers to the fundamentals (foundation, disruption, resolution), not "All this 'W' stuff." I apologize for the ambiguity.
I just realized that the initials of the fundamentals are FDR … like Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
I used to be a reviewer for a school literary magazine and saw what happens when writers focus on the capital "W" and forget the more important questions you're asking. One of my favorite articles on the "W" syndrome is B.R. Myers' "A Reader's Manifesto":
After almost a decade, I finally got around to ordering its spinoff book. Haven't received it yet, so I can only rely on its Wikipedia article for now. Here are ten ways writers can go "W" for "wrong":
Maybe someone could write a similar list for comic book writers covering the pitfalls of badly imitating Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, et al.
All this "W" stuff may feel sophisticated, but it's really superficial. It's actually easier than the fundamentals: foundation, disruption, resolution. Thank you for focusing on them.
Pitching is key. People judge books by a few lines on a back cover. Or these days, a blurb in a facebook ad. If someone is trying to sell me on his 2-Men-E Men with a hundred superheroes, I'd like to ask him, "What is your story about, really?" If his answer is, "You'd have to read my OFFICIAL HANDBOOK OF THE 2-MEN-E MEN to understand it," odds are that he doesn't understand what he's doing. That he's confused trivia with a story. A pitch lacks trivia. It's just the essentials. "Little Miss Muffet" has the essentials. "A hundred superheroes in the year 3141.59" doesn't.
Great posts. Now, this Little Miss Muffin alegory is exactly what I've told new writers to start with. Maybe you have a huge story, scenes developed, enthralling characters and a scene-by-scene breaking for 500 issues, but at some point you have to reduce it all to one simple line of text. And that, I think, finds its perfect example in Little Miss Muffin. Once you have that, you can explore and play and, even, pitch. That's what I think, at least. Can't wait 'till the next post. Thank you, Mister Shooter.
I remember sitting in the Philadelphia Convention Center attending Shooter's Story Seminar in the early 1990s and scribbling all this stuff down. (Now I can just bookmark it.)
I showed some comic sequential pages I'd done to Mr. Shooter at that show and he brought me in the booth, sat down with me and explained what I needed to work on, etc., etc.
Thanks again for that Jim. And for this blog. It's invaluable.
Like any good story, I can't wait for the next part, thanks.
I was reading ahead of the assignment in yesterdays blog… I should have guessed more was coming.
I'm enjoying this quite alot.
I've several loose ideas floating around in my head. This may encourage me to extract them and refine them to paper (so to speak). I know I could make a fine short essay…
But how to make it more than that… and then break the plot/outline treatment meaningful to a comic..
I eagerly await.