by Jeff Lyons
In part two of this series, Jeff Lyons—author, screenwriter, editor, and story development consultant—explains how to make a situation work. If you missed part one, you can read it here.
What do you do when you write a story only to discover that the five story components I discussed in Part One are weak, or missing? You love your idea, and don’t want to abandon it. This article explores the other side of this story vs. no-story coin. Remember, all stories have a structure. If they don’t, then they’re not stories, they’re something else—that “something else” is a called a situation.
This is, in fact, what most genre writers (horror, police procedural, detective, mystery, romance, etc.) are creating when they think they are writing stories. Situations are parts of stories, they are not stories themselves. But, they can still be compelling, fun, entertaining, and wonderfully engaging. How can you tell if you have a situation? Like stories, situations have five identifiable components.
The 5 Components of a Situation
- A situation is a problem, puzzle, or predicament with an obvious and direct solution.
- A situation does not reveal character; it mainly tests a character’s problem-solving skills.
- A situation’s plot twists ratchet up the puzzle or mystery (stakes), but rarely open character windows.
- A situation begins and ends in the same emotional space, especially for the protagonist.
- A situation has no, or a very weak, moral component, leading often to episodic writing.
A situation is all about the puzzle, mystery, or problem to be solved. Look at any police procedural TV show, or mystery novel (Agatha Christie, Sherlock Homes, etc.), or most monster movies, they are all about one question: how quickly and cleverly can the protagonist get out of the pickle they are in and solve the problem.
Let’s take a classic (and my favorite) set-up: the twenty-something kids caught in a cabin in the woods with the monster/slasher/alien outside trying to get in to eat/slash/probe them. The only questions are: how many kids are going to be eaten/killed/probed, how bloody is it going to get, and who will survive?
Nobody is going to have a big revelatory moment where they realize they have to change their life to be a better person. There will be no moments where we get profound insights into the inner workings of the protagonist (assuming there is a main character). And any twists or plot complications will be all about ratcheting up the tension of the problem/puzzle, not pushing characters to some behavioral edge where we see who they really are as people. The only change in the emotional space will be one of moving from happy-go-lucky (opening), to terror-filled (middle), to relief at surviving (end). In other words, the hero or heroine will end the adventure in the same emotional place inside themselves as they started.
The Real Difference
The most important differentiator of all is that there is no, or a very weak, moral component to the situation. Moral component is a complex topic, again outside the scope of this article, but what it means is that the protagonist is driven from the inside by some basic belief about him/herself, which is essentially wrong, but that is coloring all their actions outside themselves in the story world. They are acting badly, because of this characterological blind spot, and this is what they heal and change in the end. Every story has this; every situation does not. This one element alone is enough to help you quickly identify a situation from a story. Does your protagonist have a flaw that is screwing up their lives, that they would have anyway, regardless of the threat of being eaten/killed/probed?
The No-Win Scenario
There is, however, one gray-area worth mentioning. This is what I call the “basically good person caught in the no-win scenario” scenario. In the film world, some good examples of this are: Gravity (2013, Warner Bros.), The Martian (2015, Twentieth Century Fox), Taken (2008, EuropaCorp.), Godzilla (2014, Warner Bros.)—there are many others. These are all situations masquerading as stories, but they fall into this gray area; a little bit story, a little bit situation.
The differentiator that pushes them over the story line into a situation is that the heroes and heroines in all these “stories” are all focused on surviving the problem/disaster/predicament they are facing, not working out some deep-seeded flaw that is mucking up everyone’s lives around them. They are basically good people, thrust by circumstance (not of their own making) into fighting a losing battle, even though they may win in the end.
And this is what saves the story day; we root for them because they are getting crushed and find the will to live, or make some horrible choice that saves others. They don’t really change, they’ve always been good, and they end the story the same way, just beat up and a bit worse for the wear—but alive. And all of these movies were huge at the box office; great successes financially and with audiences.
Love a Good Situation
The fact is, movie/TV audiences love situations, and readers love them in fiction. The caveat here is that to be successful on the screen, or in print, situations must overcome their story weaknesses, and this means doing three things: be fun, be entertaining, and be engaging. They may not have anything to say about the human condition, and the protagonist may just be a leaf on the wind of fate, motivated only by a will to live and not by some twisted moral flaw they have to overcome in the end, but that’s alright as long as the audience has fun, is engaged, and is entertained. Stories have to do these three things as well, but stories have the advantage of having a compelling human story driving the drama or comedy, on top of being fun, entertaining, and engaging.
But, if you have a situation and you don’t want to let it go, then your responsibility as a writer is to make it the best situation you can make it (from a reader-engagement perspective). Stories are not better than situations, they are simply more complex. So, write stories that will bring readers to tears, or bust their guts laughing, and teach them what it means to be human along the way; or write a situation that will make them bite off their nails, and scream out loud in excitement, unwilling to stop reading for fear of missing what’s next. Whichever you choose, do it consciously, be a conscious writer. Learn your craft to know a story from a situation, because when you do, whatever you write will be stronger, and audiences will come back for more.
Jeff Lyons is a published fiction/nonfiction author, screenwriter, editor, and story development consultant with more than 25 years’ experience in the film, television, and publishing industries. He has worked with literally thousands of novelists, nonfiction authors, and screenwriters helping them build and tell better stories. Jeff is an instructor through Stanford University’s Online Writer’s Studio, University of California at Riverside’s Extension Program, and is a regular guest lecturer through the UCLA Extension Writers Program. He is a regular presenter at leading writing and entertainment industry trade conferences, as well as a contributor and advisor to leading entertainment industry screenwriting and producing fellowship programs, such as the Producers Guild of American’s “Power of Diversity Producers Workshop,” and the Film Independent Screenwriting Lab. Jeff is also a regular guest blogger on major writing industry blog sites like Script Magazine and Stage32.com. Jeff has written on the craft of storytelling for Writer’s Digest Magazine, Script Magazine, The Writer Magazine, and Writing Magazine (UK). His book, Anatomy of a Premise Line: How to Master Premise and Story Development for Writing Success, is the only book available devoted solely to the topic of story and premise development for novelists, screenwriters, and creative nonfiction authors. His new book, Rapid Story Development: How to Use the Enneagram-Story Connection to Become a Master Storyteller, will be published by Focal Press in summer 2017.
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