Vonnegut Story Shapes

Kurt Vonnegut had graphs in mind to explain the shapes that stories take. These are just a few of them.

Kurt Vonnegut - The Shapes of Stories
by mayaeilam.
Explore more infographics like this one on the web’s largest information design community – Visually.

I explore one of this other graphs in my Secrets of Writing book which is running late, I know. I need to finish up some of the new material but I’ve been swamped. It’s coming soon.

Alan Moore on Writing

I totally agree. This is why I try different things. I am always trying to learn new approaches and techniques. My novels are in part exercises in areas I have not been able to do in comics. I’m pushing myself harder than I ever have. And I am not doing it for money. I have stories to tell and they have important things I want to say. My next novel, Diogenes is a great example of this.

I don’t agree with Ballard’s comment, though. The new digital media is leveling the playing field and removing the filters called publishers. I’m sure that new talent will emerge to shake things up from the indy publishing world.

Write What You Know

What he’s basically saying is write what you personally feel and know or believe so your fiction is a personal expression. What they call a “writer’s voice” is something many writers struggle with but you get it by being true to yourself. The recent movie the Rum Diaries explores how a Hunter Thompson character finds his voice. It was based on a novel by Hunter S Thompson and is really an expression of his feelings as a younger man.

My Amazon Author’s Page

I created an author’s page on Amazon has a lot of my work is being made available on Kindle and iPads now. You can find them here. I will be adding a lot more books and hopefully some novels I am working on. And yes, my book on writing. I think I’ll publish it on Kindle and iPads when its all done and edited. It’s about time I got that out.

(If the page doesn’t come up come back in a few minutes. It was still being processed when I posted this.)

Writing Fundamentals Part 3

Here is the final part of my Comic Con writing seminar recap.

Three acts, what are they?

The structure that best serves the average story is the so called “three act structure”. What is that? The simplest definition is a beginning, middle and end.

The first act introduces the main characters, the scenario and gets the ball rolling.

The second act is what they call the rising conflicts stage. What happens in the second act is that the hero tries to get what they want (or prevent the loss of something they have) and every attempt they make is thwarted at each turn. The further into the story, the harder it gets for them. Of course, this is a simplification because many stories are not about obvious struggles. Some of them are more subtle. But this is essentially what happens in the second act. Lots of conflict and struggle.

The third act is the resolution. It tends to be the shortest act. It is where everything builds to a head. Where the hero and villain clash in their final battle and one comes out the winner and the other is defeated. If it were a comedy or romance, the climax could be a different kind of resolution, but it is symbolically the same.

Let’s break it down further.

Act One: Set up, Inciting Incident

The first act usually starts off with the protagonist at some stage of their life, in it’s fairly normal state. They are going along, doing their thing. We are introduced to the people around them that play a part in the story and the premise is introduced here.

For example, let’s take the first Spiderman movie. Peter Parker is a geeky high school student who wants the girls but they ignore him. He’s picked on by bullies. He lives with his loving aunt and uncle in the suburbs. He is interested in science. He longs for his neighbor, Mary Jane who doesn’t even notice he’s there.

So we’ve established who our hero is at the start of the story. We established he wants a girl out of his league. Peter would like more respect. Peter wants to be taken seriously. But at least he has people who care about him in his life. His interest in science plays an important role later. So it’s established here for a good reason.

His best friend is introduced, Harry Osborn is the son of a rich industrialist Norman Osborne who becomes our villain, the Green Goblin. At this point, Parker is not a threat to Norman. They seem to get along fine. But now we get to the point where the first act ends. What they call the Inciting incident.

The inciting incident is an event that throws everything out of whack. It is a surprising turn in the story that sets things in motion. In the film, Peter Parker is bit by a radio active spider. He gets superpowers. His superpowers have him decide to get famous by going to a wrestling match. He has his Uncle Ben give him a ride. At the match, a criminal steals the prize money and Parker lets him go because he’s mad at the event organizer. But that criminal ends up killing Peter’s Uncle. Now Parker’s life is in turmoil. The guilt and rage he experiences sets him on the course to become Spiderman. And in becoming Spiderman, he is in direct conflict with Normal Osborne who wants a certain kind of glory of his own.

The inciting incident always ends the first act and sets the story in motion. The hero and villain become in opposition at this point. Generally, this should happen no more than a quarter of the way into a story. You need to have your main characters introduced, the ground rules set and the story set in motion.

If we were talking about the first issue of a comic book series, unless that was a self contained story, that issue would be part of an over all story broken up by however many issues. But you should have a kind of act structure even in that case. Acts are like mini-stories in a sense. They have a beginning, middle and climax which is the inciting incident.

Act Two: Conflict, Turning Point

This is the meat of your story. Here is where your hero is tested again and again as he/she tries for that brass ring only to be thwarted time and time again. The antagonist seems to always be one step ahead or have the upper hand. The hero seems to make progress only to be in more danger the closer he/she gets to their goal. Now, second acts are played out lots of ways. Danger may not be literal, as in the case of the thriller. In a Romance story, for example, the heroine might encounter one frustrating thing after another about the man she couldn’t stand in the beginning of the story only to fall in love with him in the end. Here we have a case of someone wanting love and not really knowing it until it finds them. In a classic heroic struggle like the Spiderman movie we mentioned, Peter Parker discovers who the Green Goblin is, but the matter is complicated by the fact he’s his best friend’s dad and Parker doesn’t want Osborne to suspect he’s Spiderman. But eventually the wheels come off the cart. The turning point of the story is the end of the Second act. It throws the characters together into the final conflict of the story. It’s a do or die moment. Turning points happen when all other options have been exhausted and the final conflict will decide who wins of dies, as it were.

In a Romance story, maybe the guy is the antagonist but he loses by coming under the heroine’s romantic spell and falls in love. In an action story, the hero defeats the villain utterly. The turning point isn’t the climax. That goes in the third act. The turning point is the event that propels things toward the climax. In the case of the Spiderman movie, the Green Goblin (Osborn) has captured Mary Jane, Peter Parker’s love interest, and is going to kill her unless he fights him on the Brooklyn Bridge. This final battle will decide who walks away. Either a madman can continue to destroy innocent lives or Spiderman saves his girlfriend and the city. The choice Parker makes to take on the Goblin in this last battle is the turning point.

Act Three: Climax, Resolution

The climax of the story is where everything that happened before was building up to this. How powerful your climax is depends on how well you constructed the events leading to this point. Remember what I said about the story being an argument. If your “debate” was impassioned and had lots of great give and take, the climax will feel strong. If it was a boring conversation with the audience, your climax will be dull. Think of the climax in the sexual sense. You either had great sex leading to this point or not. If not, why?

This is your story. You are its creator. You have the power to make worlds, and people and things happen. It’s up to you to make this come about in an exciting way.

The climax is call that for a simple reason: like a climax, when it’s over you just want to wind it down. When the final conflict happens you want to tied up the story quickly. Because at that point, people start getting ready to leave the theater, as it were. You can make the final moments interesting, but you don’t want to drag them out. Your readers should have been put through an emotional wringer and you want to leave them with a sense of closure here.

The ending is 60% or more important than the rest of the story

The ending of a story is the most important part of it. The reason is simple. This is what people will remember the most if the story worked.

Everything in your story leads to that ending. And if the ending is not memorable or satisfying, people will come away thinking your story was weak. Think of all the good movies or books you read that were entertaining but the ending let you down. People do not recommend stories with bad endings. They are dismissed as second rate, if that.

You can write a very entertaining yarn but if the pay off is weak, the story will feel like a cheat. And people do not like to be cheated or have their time wasted.

You aren’t only asking for people’s money when you write a story, you are asking for their time and trust. You owe it to them to give them their money’s worth. Otherwise, why should they trust you again?


This series was based on a one hour workshop I gave at the 2010 San Diego Comic Con. I spoke for 45 minutes then answered questions. Like the class, I was only skimming over some important points. I will go into more detail in my book which I am in the process of finishing now. Check my essays for more excerpts from my writing lessons.

Writing Fundamentals Part 2

Your protagonists want/fear something, whether they know it or not

As we discussed in part one, your characters are driven by desires or fears. The nature of their desires and fears help define the kind of people they are. There is also a simple rule that some people let their fears and desires drive them, and others use their fears and desires as a motivating tool. Some people are unconsciously moved around by their emotions, while others are very aware of their drives and almost harness them to give them the impetus to get what they want. Those kind of people are usually what we call “self directed”. Most people go through life driven by their urges, though we try to have self control over our eating habits and so on. But we often fail. Others are masters of self control. But no one is immune from giving in to their weaknesses. And when they do, it can be telling.

In a story, your hero may not even know he has a desire or fear. It may be unconscious and yet it is like an invisible hand guiding him. At some point in your story, they may need to deal with it and their mastery or failure can be the point of the story. For example, a villain does not have to be a person. It can be the weakness of the hero, like a drug addiction, for example. And the hero overcoming it will be his triumph over the “antagonist” of the story.

Unconscious desires are things people can relate to because we all have them. We sometimes aren’t aware of them until later in life. And a story that deals with this subject can often be one that reveals a truth to the reader they can relate to.

The Antagonist’s desires/fears are in opposition to the protagonist

Your villain/antagonist may or may not be a person. It can be a monster, an animal, the elements, etc. But whatever it is, it is in opposition to your hero. If your hero fears losing some important device, the villain wants it. If your hero wants something, the villain stands in the way.

Every move your hero makes, the villain will counter. He will try to exhaust every option your hero uses until it comes down to the end conflict. The villain of your piece is the counter to your hero in every way, so they can’t be weaker. If anything, they need to be stronger than your hero. Nothing makes a story more boring than a villain who isn’t a challenge.

Story is a argument. Characters are points of view

One way of looking at a story is seeing it as an argument. You are making a statement of some kind. It cannot be totally obvious or that would be preaching. You do not want to lecture or tell people something. You want to show them. You need to convince your reader of the point you are making. Whatever that is.

A big mistake many people make is to find some generic message and use that as your argument. Such as pollution is bad. Drugs are bad. Etc. Most people get that already. The ones who may disagree are going to scoff at what you say if you want to lecture or preach to them. A storyteller does not do that. And a good storyteller does not try to do arguments that have been done to death, or are clichéd.

You need your stories/arguments to be fresh, to make people think. By engaging people’s minds, you are getting them more involved than they would be normally. And they will like you for it.

Antagonists and Hero are opposing arguments

Since your story is an argument, and the protagonist is the champion of the premise. The antagonist is the champion of the counter-premise. The story that plays out pits one side against the other and the argument you are making needs to come out on top. But if you are not fair to the other side, as in, the villain does not make a good show of things, then the readers will feel cheated and will think you did not make a good argument.

There are pros and cons to everything. Villains are the heroes of their own story. They think they are doing right by them. So you have to write them from that perspective.

Read more in my Essay on heroes and villains here.

Writing Fundamentals Part 1

I’ll break this article into parts over the next few days. Here is what I covered at Comic Con. Some of this will make its way into my writing book which I am editing now.

What is a story? Why do they exist?

20,000 years ago, or more, human beings sat around campfires and tried to figure out why things were the way they are. Why are there storms, wind, rain, earthquakes, gravity, death, famine, disease, old age, etc. They had no idea. They had no science. So they created mythologies in the form of stories. The best stories would become religions. Those ancient storytellers learned that certain tricks of telling a story entertained and while other methods bored the audience. And that is when storytelling began to be crafted.

Stories were created to explain the unexplainable, or as I like to say, make sense of the senselessness of our existence.

A good story makes some kind of sense. A good story tells us a truth of some kind. Or at least, makes us believe it’s a truth.

Stories are metaphors for life. Any story that doesn’t have meaning of some kind is a waste of our time.

Entertainment isn’t enough. We need the story to be memorable. And that comes from relevance. If a story touches on subjects or ideas that mean something to us on some level, we will take away ideas. If the story is really that good, we may even be enlightened in some way. We remember stories that reveal truths to us we can relate to. The stories we like are ones we choose to revisit again and again. That is because they speak to us personally and we relate to them. They validate our views of life, or they open our eyes to things we never considered.

What separates good stories from bad? A point.

Bad stories do none of those things. Bad stories are a mixture of events meant to entertain but are often either predictable or pointless. Bad stories are usually unbelievable, either because the characters do stupid things, are boring, unlikeable in some way, or have nothing to tell us we don’t already know.

Most of all, bad stories lack a point. It isn’t enough that someone wins or loses in the end. It matters that their success or failure reveals a truth of some kind. Good always over evil triumphs because? Crime doesn’t pay because? Drugs are bad because? Whatever the story was trying to say, if it was trying to say anything at all, it either didn’t convince us or it told us something really clichéd or dull.

We don’t just want to be entertained. We want to be moved. We want to feel something. We can’t get thrilled or excited or angry or amused by things we see coming a zillion miles away. We can’t be entertained by a story that makes no sense. Or is pointless.

Understanding people. Character is Action

One of the most important things you can ever learn if you want to be a writer is to understand people. That’s not as hard as it seems. Yes, people seem crazy or unpredictable at times. But they really aren’t that hard to fathom. Most people fail to listen and observe others. They are wrapped up in themselves and their own little world.

If you want to be a good writer, here is some good advice. Learn to shut up and listen to people. Stop focusing on yourself so much and learn to listen to people. Really listen.

People do not say things directly most of the time. They tell you things indirectly and you have to learn how to listen to what they are saying. This is how fortune tellers and mentalists seem to read people’s minds (or futures). They listen to them and figure out where their hearts and minds are. They can see their desires and work with that.

Your fundamental job as a writer is to create characters your readers can relate to and believe in. They can’t do this if the characters don’t ring true. So learn to watch and listen to people to get their rhythms. Learn to understand human motivations.

And remember that character is action.

What that means is, the choices someone makes defines who they are. If a terrorist bursts into a crowded room waving a gun, many people will fall to the floor and scream. Some will cower in fear. Some will look for an exit. Some will assess the situation and try to see if they can stop the terrorist. Some will beg for mercy. A few might attack. There are all kinds of possible reactions but what your character does in an extreme instance defines what kind of person they are. Are they a coward, a hero? A peace maker? You get to decide in the situations you create. But remember, your audience is watching what that character does and how they react. This tells the reader if they should like them or not. If the character does something the reader approves of, they will like them more. If they do something stupid, they will like them less. If you’re good, you will know how to massage these emotions to the effect you want to create. It’s possible to make a likable character that does stupid things. But at some point they will have to redeem themselves if you want the audience to care what happens to them.

Two driving motivations: Desire to have, fear of loss

Humans are driven by two opposing emotions, desire and fear.

We are born hungry, screaming for air, food, love. From birth to death we hunger for things. We are creatures of desire. It defines us. What kind of desires we have define us too. As do the things we fear.

When you create a story, one of the first things you need to figure out is what does your character want and why? Because that will drive them through the story. It will give impetus to the narrative.

People can relate to desire. They can relate to hunger of some kind. It is something every human has inside them.

Fear is also an emotion we all have somewhere inside us. We all fear different things. I am not talking about phobias. I am talking mainly of fear of loss. We fear losing what we have. Health, love, money, life, friends. These are powerful motives people can relate to.

Remember, you need to tell us stories full of truth of some kind. Or truths. Fear and desire are two very human motivations we can relate to. Once you understand this simple rule, it will be much easier for you to construct motives for your characters.

Update on Writing Class

I came back from the con with a horrible cold. So I am kind of groggy on cold medicine. I planned on writing about my Writing Fundamentals class tonight but I think I will do it tomorrow.

However, here is the bullet points of what I covered. I will expand on these tomorrow.

What is a story? Why do they exist?
What separates good stories from bad? A point.
Understanding people. Character is Action
Two driving motivations: Desire to have, fear of loss
Your protagonists want something, whether they know it or not
The Antagonist’s desires are in opposition to the protagonist
Story is a argument. Characters are points of view.
Antagonists and Hero are opposing arguments
Three acts, what are they?
Set up, Inciting Incident
Conflict, Turning Point
Resolution
The ending is 60% or more important than the rest of the story

Comic Con Writing Workshop

I will be teaching a one hour writing workshop at the Comic Con this year. Something I used to do back in the early 90s and I missed doing. Here is the info.

Thursday, July 22
4:30-5:30 Writing Workshop Room 30CDE
James D Hudnall, (Espers, The Psycho) explains the fundamentals of writing effective fiction and characters. James details the core principals you will need to write strong, meaningful stories. How to make your idea work to their best effect. How to make a character believable. How to make the reader care. Some of the most important things a writer can learn in an hours time.

If you come to the con next month, don’t forget! I will mention this again the week leading to the convention.

Hemingway was a Commie Spy?

A new book claims that writer Ernest Hemingway was a wanna be communist spy for the Soviets. Those people in the arts sure can be foolish.

Last week, however, saw the publication of Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America (Yale University Press), which reveals the Nobel prize-winning novelist was for a while on the KGB’s list of its agents in America. Co-written by John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr and Alexander Vassiliev, the book is based on notes that Vassiliev, a former KGB officer, made when he was given access in the 90s to Stalin-era intelligence archives in Moscow.

Its section on the author’s secret life as a “dilettante spy” draws on his KGB file in saying he was recruited in 1941 before making a trip to China, given the cover name “Argo”, and “repeatedly expressed his desire and willingness to help us” when he met Soviet agents in Havana and London in the 40s. However, he failed to “give us any political information” and was never “verified in practical work”, so contacts with Argo had ceased by the end of the decade. Was he only ever a pseudo-spook, possibly seeing his clandestine dealings as potential literary material, or a genuine but hopelessly ineffective one?