Note: I had intended for this to run in time with the classes, but now there is a significant delay due to, well, life. So, this is now several weeks behind where I am at. However I still intend on keeping track here of this process.
It’s funny to think that while I attended CEGEP in Quebec I took several drawing/ painting and Creative Writing courses that were a full semester in length and in a mere 6 hours with Ty Templeton I have already learned far more. The information Ty presents is no nonsense and down to business, cutting straight to that which is most practical within the first moments of each class. There’s a strong likelihood that my innate understanding of what he is showing me is more developed and I am in a better place to understand it than the me that struggled to grasp foreshortening back in college, with many years of slowly developing skills in each category, but that does nothing to undercut how efficiently and effectively Ty communicates the information to teach is practical skill sets for these creative fields. I understand how he is teaching it, as well as why he is teaching it, and immediately see it as a beneficial tool in restructuring my previously developed ideas.
In the first of the two classes this psst week he demonstrated a professional perspective on storytelling and artistic creation that was a tempered mix between the passion he has for creation and an informed understanding of what it takes to make a living in this business. It was refreshing. I have read many books on writing science fiction and fantasy, but none had deigned to teaching me what I would need to be able to be successful financially and not just from a quality of my work standpoint. It was exactly what I needed. I know how to have wild ideas and crazy adventures spring forth from brain. I don’t know how to break down plot development into a succinct list of concepts that can be easily turned into a successfully marketable story. If I want to make a living at any point in my life off of my ideas in the way that I want to (think KISS level merchandising, but likely on a less colossal scale) I need to know how to take the uniqueness that I can offer to the world and make it commercially viable. I do not believe quality content that is also merchandisable has to be the Loch Ness Monster of the artistic industries. There are several creator’s presently doing just that, who have never compromised from their own unique vision and have been remarkably successful. Todd McFarlane and Robert Kirkman come to mind.
I was taught that “No one wants to read your story” is the first lesson any creator needs to learn. This was never meant to discourage us in the class. It was meant to provide us with a shift in perspective on storytelling. We need to work to get the audience’s attention by building our stories in such a way that we both give them what they were expecting and to give them what they weren’t expecting but that what they weren’t expecting is what will leave them full and satiated as a consumer of your creative goods.
It’s all in your hook to begin with, as Ty broke it down in a way that had me seeing the hooks in successful media immediately. It also made me realize that some of my stories already had great hooks built into them? And that some of them seemed lost for want of a hook. Practicing making hooks has become a fun experiment, with my girlfriend even challenging me to make hooks out of random locations she threw my way, my favourite was “library storage room”. It resulted in the stellar hook: “In the most secret library storage room lies a magic book that wants to steal the souls of its reader’s and let loose the demon trapped inside.” The structure of the hook almost writes itself without much fretting. Not every hook in my practices was that good, but this isn’t about quality so much as it is about reinforcing the basic premises of how to set up the hook. It is, after all, practice.
After addressing the hooks, and the simple structure that goes into them (here’s another for you. Go on, see if you can spot the pattern: The fastest midget in New Hampshire wants to break the world sprinting record ) , we move on into identifying the characteristics of your protagonist and how to work them into the plot in a 5 act structure. This requires a decision first as to the nature of your protagonist : are they a hero, an antihero, an everyman, or a misanthrope. This scale was something I understood before the class on an inherent level but was not able to codify and identify so readily as the tools Ty provided us with allow us to do. It’s basic structure and ideas that, for some reason, seem to be held back in other creative writing educational experiences I have had.
Ty lays out these bits of information that feel revelatory to me like he’s putting peanut butter on toast. I guess that’s what comes with 30-someodd years of experience in creating stories for a living. He breaks down famous scenes from comics and film to illustrate his points as we moved through the class and made effective use of every instance. It’s hard to write this without nearly copy-pasting my notes from the class to communicate how appropriately and succinctly he breaks these things down.
So instead of me giving away all of his secrets, how about I just show you some of it in action.
We’ll start with that nice simple hook from above, “The fastest midget in New Hampshire wants to break the world sprinting record”. We can also arbitrarily decide that in this instance the character will be a true hero, which means that he is selfless, brave (which means that he must be willing to face his own fears, and that he has admirable qualities. Now, once we have decided that we can begin to structure the story. First we need to lay out how it begins and how it ends so that we can have the middle portions make sense and logically feed into our ending. So we introduce him, let’s call him Bob, we introduce Bob in a way that highlights who he is and only he can do: Let’s have him show up in a local statewide sprinting competition, audience perspective focusing on all these athletes running when suddenly Bob comes barreling by and passes these super-fit athletes and wins this statewide competition, then we follow him home where he puts the trophy along with a plethora of other championship trophies all with the state name on them. A little heavy handed, maybe, but it communicates that he is the fastest in New Hampshire effectively. It not only tells you who he is, but it establishes what is normal for him.
Now we have take some more decisions about this story’s arc. Does Bob succeed in his desire? And what is the unexpected gain or loss that makes the story more than just a series of expected scenes predicted by the audience’s mind when they read your hook? So, let’s arbitrarily be a downer and decide that he fails to break the world sprinting record. Womp womp. And why not give him love, possibly the most universal unexpected gain, and something that has added depth and meat to a variety of works that otherwise would have been terribly one – dimensional. He’ll, even Indiana Jones was made better by a love story built underneath his fight against nail for the arc of the covenant.
Now, with that beginning and ending out of the way we need to start fleshing out how we get from one end to the other. Since we can’t have the character have a desire that isn’t introduce in the story we can have a simple inciting incident wherein someone passing through our protagonist’s home town in good ole New Hampshire is an athlete, nay a sprinter, and he runs into our hero at some pub. Let’s call it Ye Olde Dash to be overtly metaphoric. So he gets into a drunken chat with this sprinter and challenges him to a – have you guessed it? – a sprint!
Our intrepid hero loses the race, maybe partly because he’s drunk but also because he isn’t as fast as he thinks he is. He hasn’t considered that people from that most despicable of places (Vermont!) or elsewhere in the word might have something that he has never run up against before. His small worldview thoroughly shattered he sets himself to learning about the global context of his sport and training his body for the arduous task ahead.
We need to show his characteristics in scenes where his attributes are revealed to us as solutions for problems he encounters. We have three acts between the two we’ve already established to work within. So we have to show that he is brave, that he is admirable (his blankiest blank provides us with his admirable characteristic), and that he is selfless. So, now we’re gonna get a bit breakneck in our pacing here.
So, we’ve got our hero training and in act two we decide that he needs to show that he is brave. To do this we retroactively insert into act one some sort of fear for him, let’s have it be babies, he is absolutely terrified of them and their soft, not-fully-developed craniums. Now we just put him into a situation where he has to deal with babies to get through it… like, I dunno, his new trainer gets held up somewhere in a broken-down automobile and calls our hero to pick up his infant from some daycare or the training won’t move forward (I never said this plot would be good or logical). Boom! We have him go through with it, he gets this baby, carries it at arm’s length, and faces his fear. Our protagonist is brave, facing his own personal fears, and now the audience knows it. Here we also have him meet the lady who works at the daycare who he finds attractive. Setting up the love-interest.
Now we can do a simple third act where we force the character to have to go through some sort of qualifying round in his desire to break the world record, where him being the fastest in New Hampshire is what he uses to solve the problem, where he has to break his own personal records to show that his training is paying off. We think that he is now going to go on and be successful in breaking this record!
Act 4 rolls around and we need to demonstrate that he is selfless, so I envision him on the road to the big event when the love interest he is travelling with gets a call from someone close to her who is dying and he is presented with the options to let her off and continue on to the event or take her to where she needs to go and we have him choose to take her there, giving up on his goals but gaining something more important to him in the long run.
And there you have it! Bob’s Amazing Sprint, a fully developed story in five simple acts. Of course there is much more polish that needs to be put onto this for it to be entertaining and good, but we have now laid-out a framework that we can move forward from and build upon as we create the finer nuances of the plot structure.