This lovely workshop came to my attention last year through Jenny Madore, a writer friend. It was put together by Lorin Oberweger and Free Expressions. Jenny sent me a notice last spring, yes, that was waaaay back in March of 2016, with the notification and a special early-bird discount.
The notification? Christopher Vogler, James Scott Bell, and Donald Maass would be coming to Toronto to present their Story Masters workshop. Needless to say, I registered on the spot.
Fast forward to May 10, 2017, and I was on my way to the Crowne Plaza Airport and excited to learn from these three masters of story.
Day one: Christopher Vogler
I’ve read The Writer’s Journey (and Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces, Murdock’s The Heroine’s Journey and The Hero’s Daughter, as well as watching Campbell’s series with Bill Moyer, The Power of Myth), and I was looking forward to meeting Christopher Vogler in person.
One thing I’d forgotten, having read his book years ago, was that Vogler is a screenwriter. He’s been working with the hero’s journey for forty years, since his film school days.
Highlights of the presentation:
- A knowledge of structure will help you see the bones of a story.
- The map is not the journey.
- Get all five senses on the page – Ray Bradbury.
- They won’t remember your words but they’ll remember how you made them feel – Maya Angelou.
- Economy of language.
- Make invisible things visible.
- Use dissonance.
- Theme – boil it down to one word.
- The chakra system can be used to orient where your story comes from. There’s a parallel between the chakras and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
- Vogler’s rule – the story’s good if two or more organs are leaking fluids. Visceral, but accurate (blood, sweat, tears, vomit, pee—from fear or laughter, and, erm, sexual fluids—it’s true; a well-written sex scene gets the juices flowing, doesn’t it?).
- A story should be focused, “in alignment with the grid,” a term from dance.
- How your protagonist/main character enters the story is critical. Classically, protagonist means the first person to struggle. Now, that’s your hero or main character.
- A story should evoke catharsis. The classical definition of catharsis was vomiting. Now it’s an emotional cleansing.
- How stories work: want vs. need. Want is generally external or physical. Need is internal or emotional. There are two story questions, one inner and one outer. It creates suspense. There’s always a price.
- Every world/milieu is polarized. The hero brings synthesis.
Vogler also showed us a number of movie clips to illustrate the 12 stages of the hero’s journey, discussed the two founders of screenwriting, Aristotle and Syd Field, three-act structure and how the hero’s journey works with it, storytelling aesthetics, and his own meeting with Campbell.
Day two: James Scott Bell
I’ve read some of Bell’s writing craft books and followed his collective/blog – Kill Zone. Again, I was looking forward to meeting someone I’d only ever known as a virtual presence.
- A writer needs to have an edge. What is it? Unforgettable writing. Seductive believability.
- Write from the middle. The mirror moment. What’s happening to the character at that moment is what the story’s about.
- The mirror moment can focus on one of two things: 1) Who am I? What have I become? What will I become? [emotional/spiritual struggle] Or, 2) I’m going to die. [Physical] The death can be metaphorical. Both result in the transformation of your character.
- Once you know what your story’s about, you have your focus, your theme.
- Pre-story psychology. Does your character have a moral flaw to overcome? Do they change or get their comeuppance? Is your character ordinary? What circumstances force the character to change?
- Short fiction is about a shattering moment rather than a mirror moment.
- Bell’s golden triangle: pre-story psychology leads to the mirror moment, which leads to the transformation. It can be applied in an individual novel, or over the course of the series, or both.
- The shadow story – what’s happening elsewhere?
- Keep a story journal to keep track.
- Great characters jump off the page. They’re unpredictable, burning, wounded, complex, resourceful, courageous, noble.
- Bell’s corollary to Vogler’s rule: you must have a fluid fight inside your character.
- Ways to develop character: 1) The closet search – what’s the skeleton? 2) Throwing the chair (out the window) – why do they do it? 3) Best day/worst day. 4) What tattoo do they have, where, and why? Or, why would they never get a tattoo? 5) what would they do or think about in jail?
- Opposition character: you must know what they yearn for, why they deserve it, and then make your closing argument (convince the reader).
- Cut the boring parts, or, make them interesting.
- Fear is a continuum. It raises the stakes. Fear of the known. Fear of the unknown.
- Scene structure: every scene must have an objective, obstacles, and an outcome [yes, but/no, and].
- SUES = something unexpected in every scene.
- Every scene has a reaction: time for thought, perception, emotion, backflash (short remembrance), or flashback (full scene – use sparingly).
- Dialogue: every character has an agenda. If those agendas are conflicting, even better. Dialogue creates conflict/tension, subtext, sets the tone for the scene, and sets the tone for the characters. Specific concerns: vocabulary, expressions, syntax. They should vary between characters. Dialogue should be unpredictable and compressed. Dialogue should reveal character webs, backstory, and theme.
- Tools: Orchestration, transactional analysis (Google it), curve the language.
Bell, also from a screenwriting background, showed us clips from Casablanca and Now, Voyager and cited a number of novels (ranging from Gone with the Wind to The Hunger Games) to illustrate his points, linked to Vogler’s hero’s journey, and set us up for Donald Maass’s presentation on the next day.
Day three: Donald Maass
I think Donald Maass was the story master I was most excited to meet. I’ve bought and read all of his books (except The Emotional Craft of Fiction, which I bought at the event), and I’ve read and shared all of his Writer Unboxed contributions.
I’m such a fan that when I met him in the elevator, I blurted out, “I’m here to see you!” like a total fangirl.
He paused. “Do I know you? You look familiar …”
“We’ve never met in person, but you may have seen me online—the white hair’s distinctive. I share all of your posts. I’m a big fan.” And then, mercifully, we reached the lobby and debarked. I was completely mortified, certain Maass thought I was a stalker.
It reminded me of a recent post by my friend, Kim, who said she becomes so distracted in the presence of a writer that she says the most inappropriate things. Happens to me all the time.
For those of you who haven’t been to a Donald Maass presentation, it’s a bit different from what you might expect. He presents a topic, speaks briefly, and then, he begins to ask questions. The questions are intended to guide you into the heart of your characters, your scenes, your story.
It’s very meditative, very zen. And totally effective.
Unfortunately, after a few hours, the brain stops working and you just write down the questions for future review and examination. At least, that’s what happened to my brain.
I just wanted to give you a flavour of Maass’s style.
- Too many novel openings are written objectively despite the prevalence of first and close third person narration.
- Where does the story truly begin?
- Story does not equal plot.
- What’s different and how does your protagonist know things will never be the same? What symbolizes this? What do they do differently? What needs to be explained? What expertise does your protagonist have? What do they know that the reader needs to know? How does the trouble come? Why?
- Writers adopt a voice that suits the genre, but not the story.
- What happens? What’s unique to the setting? What anchors you? What wakes you up to your reality? What’s unique to the character? Name, role/occupation, what task/goal/purpose do they think they have? What’s on the “to do” list of your character?
- [We then did an exercise in which we rewrote the beginning of our works in progress with three different voices: ironic, academic, and spiritual.]
- The inner life of the character is the true story.
- Plot does not equal story.
- You have to write with emotion about emotion in a way that deeply engages readers.
- What makes you angry?
- Your protagonist feels a new emotion. Pause. Slow things down. Go deeper. How does that change your protagonist? What will they never do again? What will they never feel again? What will they never feel the same way about again?
- How do you create the sense of an evolving human being rather than someone to whom stuff happens?
- Does your character have flaws?
- My Writer Unboxed colleague Lisa Cron wrote a book called Story Genius that I highly recommend. She states every character has a misbelief that shapes their story. What is your character’s misbelief? Who will be hurt because of their misbelief? What does the character get wrong? What do they believe that will cost them dearly? Who will walk away from them because of the misbelief? What will they lose? What can they do that shows they’ve changed? Is it big? Symbolic? What’s the secret they’ve never told anyone? Is your protagonist concealing something from someone else?
- What’s the character’s origin story?
Other facets of novel construction
- Summary. Lorin Oberweger posted on Writer Unboxed about this. When should you use it?
- Scene structure. Things have changed by the end of the scene. Subvert expectations. Show the inner shift in the novel. Scenes must change either the plot or the character.
- Enhancing the story world. What’s the environment? What does your protagonist see that no one else sees? What does your antagonist see? Is there a class structure? How does that play out with your characters? What historical events have shaped the world? What are the political structures? What is just not done? Is there a code of honour? How do you make a deal? How do you pay respect?
- Telling and showing. Both have value.
What do readers want?
- They want an emotional experience. They want to engage with your protagonist. They want a satisfying payoff. They want aesthetic value. They want a challenge. They want to figure it out. They want a feeling of success.
- Readers have their own journey.
Third level emotion
- Pick a pivotal scene in your novel. What is the character feeling? What else are they feeling (cancel out any similar emotions)? And again, what else (that is like neither of the first two)?
- Use the third emotion you identify to frame the character in the scene. It seems counterintuitive, but it’s very effective. Readers use cognitive evaluation.
Mythic roles (archetypes)
- What fairy tale character is your protagonist most like? Shakespearean? Biblical? Greek or Roman mythos? Indigenous or other cultural figure? Urban legend?
- What symbology have you built around your character?
The four things your story must do
- The macro level: structure/plot/character arc.
- Scene level: structure and goals.
- Microtension: every page, every line. Court cognitive dissonance.
- Subvert reader expectations.
The big event
- Think of the event that changes everything for your protagonist and the story world. What causes people to think it’s never going to happen? Think of three reasons why. How do we know it will happen? Think of three reasons.
- Take out foreshadowing. Include misdirection. Manipulate expectations.
- Choose a secondary character who is good. Invent a way to create doubt. Cast suspicion.
- Make the reader wait for the payoff. What are three reasons it might be the wrong thing for your protagonist to do? Build a case for doing something different.
- Every story has a moral map. Point the reader down the path. What makes a reader care even when nothing is happening? Hope. What is good? What can be saved?
Day four was an analysis of To Kill a Mockingbird in which all three story masters brought their individual strengths to bear.
My brain was mush by the end, but I brought a lot of awesome back with me and twice as many pages of notes as what I’ve shared with you here.
Other writerly goodness: I met Jenny Madore in person, saw writer friends Jeanette Winsor and Sue Reynolds, and hung out with Robert J. Sawyer for a bit. It was comforting to know that someone I consider a story master in his own right is still learning 🙂
I had a fabulous time and suggest you check out the Free Expressions web site if you’re interested in attending one of their workshops.
As always, my friends, be well, be kind, and stay strong. The world needs your stories.
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