Structure, Premise, Environment, and Character
There are a lot of ways people pull apart the way we tell stories – to look inside and try to describe the different parts and how they all fit together. The classic 3-act structure and the modern 7-point story, Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey and the Hollywood formula are some of the ways people have broken down the narrative structure.
Orson Scott Card’s MICE quotient (which has partly inspired my SPEC method) is a way of looking at a story through the lenses of four different elements. The elements of SPEC are similar, but the method I’m outlining here is specifically about developing the idea for a story. And the way I work the different elements together to get a story ready to write reflects how I’ve internalized what I’ve studied and what I’ve learned through my own experience.
No, this isn’t a rigid guide I’ve used to write by – it’s what I see when I look back at how I developed the stories I’ve written and am writing. I wouldn’t want to write by some preplanned checklist, and I wouldn’t recommend it.
This is just one more way to look at the art of storytelling – take any of it that helps and use it your own way. (And I hope this is a tenth as helpful as any of those other methods I mentioned.)
I’m going to talk about these elements in a particular order, and hopefully you’ll understand why as I describe my process.
First comes the premise, which I think of as the seed of the story. The basic ‘what if’ of our imaginations is the launching pad for a story and a necessary starting point, from which everything else flows. And like a seed, I believe a proper premise contains the DNA of the other 3 elements, and indeed, of the entire narrative.
Second comes character. To paraphrase one of my favorite writers, Steven Moffat, plot is just what happens – story is who it happens to. The main characters are the beating heart of the story, and as such they need to be fully alive, distinct personalities in your mind. They should be the engine that drives the narrative.
Third comes environment, which is more than setting – it’s the entire economy in which your characters move and breathe. It’s the basic set of rules that define and constrain the world your characters live in, the people they interact with, and the options they have (or think they have.)
Last comes structure. By this I don’t mean a rigid outline, but a dynamic framework. Like a roller coaster, a good framework should work to create the right movement, rattling the story along at a good pace at the same time as it constrains the path to get you safely to a good end.
By the time you’ve grown the seed of your initial premise into all four elements, then the story itself should be ready to be discovered – which is an exciting journey every bit as thrilling as that roller coaster ride.
Next week: P is for Premise.