Tuesday, March 3, 2009

WorldBuilding - Trunk-ated

This is an exercise in WORLDBUILDING.

This exercise takes off from my blog post

followed by my blog post

The theory is to select the story you want to tell, then wrap the world around it. Create the background and backstory to support what you want your story to say.

What your story says is your theme.

Take the following opening scene, use Blake Snyder's Beat Sheet (which works for novels as well as for films) and create the rest of this plot in single line, half-sentence, or even single word entries in the beat sheet.

http://www.blakesnyder.com/tools/ is where to download the beat sheet. It's currently item #2 in the list there. There is an example of a famous movie fitted into this beat sheet lower down that page.

Write a couple of paragraphs sketching the Worldbuilding around the plot.

For example: if your beat sheet calls for Trish, the lead female, to die and return as a ghost to haunt the guy who killed her, your worldbuilding notes would say that ghosts are real and can communicate with the living, maybe give rules for how a ghost could affect the solid world.

Post the result as a comment here on this blog.

---------Story Opening ------------
Title: Trunk-ated
by Jacqueline Lichtenberg
Permissions: Use Freely to do this Worldbuilding exercise

Trish clenched her fists which were tied behind her and kicked hard with her legs tied at the ankle and knee. Her face inched closer to the open lock of her car's trunk. Her nose entered a shaft of sunlight.

She squinted up at her captor who smirked down at her. When her captor's attention flicked aside, she spat her chewing gum into the lock and prayed.

Back turned, her captor slammed the trunk lid which caught with an odd thwunk sound.

She lay in the pitch dark, smelling every pizza she'd ever carried in the trunk of her 1962 Cadillac and blessed the writers of the TV Series Forever Knight. Finally, she heard the crunch of gravel under booted feet, then silence.

She calmed herself then summoned a sparkle of power to her fingertips. She twisted her fingers until she had a bit of rope between them. With a tiny, delicate push, she burned the rope, scorched her flesh, burned some more and severed the rope.

Nearby, a truck engine turned over with a ragged cough. The truck gunned onto the highway and dopplered away. Silence. Not even one passing car.

With a heave and a squirm, Trish freed her hands, burned through the ropes at her knees and ankles then levered her back up against the trunk lid. She bounced the Caddy on its shocks to free the latch. She thought she'd suffocate before it gave, made a mental note to get the interior catch release changed, and finally, the lid swung up trailing a long strand of gum.

She ashed the gum with a flash of power, slammed the lid and strode the length of the car, one hand trailing the upswept fin. Local urban legend had it this car had two hundred fifty ghosts under the hood and vampire blood in the tank. It was a whole lot more than that.

---------End Opening--------------

HINTS: Answer the questions raised as you read this opening.
a) who is Trish?
b) who tied her up?
c) who put her in the trunk of her car?
d) why was she left beside a deserted road instead of killing her?
e) how did she come to drive a 1962 Caddy - and is it REALLY just a classic Caddy?
f) does she do "magic" or is her fire just ESP? Is there a demon or familiar involved?
g) does the Caddy conceal an A.I.?
h) is Trish actually human? Or an alien from outer space? Alternate Universe? Elf?
i) was that actually chewing gum?
j) if she has such "powers" -- how and why did she let herself be captured and tied up?
k) was there an accomplice lurking behind her captor? Had they captured someone else when they captured her? Was it the someone else who was being kidnapped?
l) what will Trish do about the guy who tied her up?
m) what is her internal conflict? Her external conflict? Is her captor really her enemy or a double agent she didn't want to uncover?
n) what is her objective? Will she succeed?
o) maybe change the title to fit your theme

Note how this and many more questions are carefully NOT answered but only raised by this opening. This is a demonstration of the technique I have discussed on the Alien Romance blog which I call Information Feed. First make the reader curious; then provide answers dispersed amid the action.

Yes, you may rewrite this opening for this exercise. But you'll learn more by doing the exercise based on this opening. What is not-included in this opening is easily as important as what is included. The lack of certain information is as important as the presence of what is there.

Playing with this exercise will sharpen your ability to create this kind of open textured springboard for a story with a complex backstory and background.

You may post your "beats" of the plot and your Worldbuilding paragraphs in the comments section of this blog where others may comment or post other visions of what this story could become.

You may do one version of this story as SCIENCE FICTION and another as FANTASY and/or another as PARANORMAL ROMANCE -- or even SCIENCE FICTION ROMANCE.

See how the same story can scroll out against the different backgrounds and end up qualifying in another genre.

You may decide to do this exercise and not post the results here but instead use it in your own novel.

After you finish the exercise, take a universe that you know well and have fleshed out in detail and write a story opening patterned on this one -- designed to spark questions in the reader's mind by not-saying many of the most important things about your universe.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg


Kimber Li said...

I want to do this, but I don't have the time right now. I just got a request for a Full of MANIC KNIGHT from a publisher and I have to get it out the door as perfectly as I can. I'll catch up with this next week.

ozambersand said...

Hi, I am a newbie at this and may not have completely understood the task. I downloaded the beat and have structured my plot to fit. However, if I have given too much plot and not enough world building, I apologise in advance!

DATE: 4th MARCH 2009

1. Opening Image (1): As written.

2. Theme Stated (5): A world where “Heroes” with special abilities exist.

3. Set-Up (1-10): Advert calls for people with “super” powers to apply for last position in new “Heroes” agency. First applicant to fulfil goals will be chosen.

4. Catalyst (12): Trish (Vancouver girl) drives to meets Blake (typical Albertan in rodeo gear) in Calgary bar and after a few Bacardi Breezers tells him she is going to apply for the job next day.

5. Debate (12-25): As they leave bar he kisses her and she swoons (his secret power!) and he bundles her into trunk of her own Cadillac, so that she will miss deadline for job application.

6. Break into Two (25) Trish arrives at appointment in time.

7. B Story (30): Trish livid with Blake because (a) she enjoyed kiss (b) can’t see how his “powers” count. He doesn’t think she should get job as it is too dangerous.

8. Fun and Games (30-55): Discovered that agency had been watching all applicants prior to arrival and were aware of incident in bar. Decide to try using Trish and Blake as a team to fulfil a set task. They continually bicker as they try to recover a cat who has been “kidnapped”. Drive around in her cadillac, she taking it all seriously, he teasing her threatening to kiss her again.

9. Midpoint (55): During test they are informed that cat and its 9 yr old owner (child of one of agency heroes) are indeed missing and being held as hostages.

10. Bad Guys Close In (55-75): Discover whereabouts of child (and cat). Trish uses her super power to break into wooden buildings but while trying to rescue child, Trish and Blake are caught.

11. All Is Lost (75): Turns out one of agency has turned traitor and informed about her skills, so she is put in metal handcuffs. They laugh about Blake’s swooning kiss power and he just glowers at them.

12. Dark Night of the Soul (75-85): While locked up together, Trish admits that despite teasing she really does like Blake.

13. Break into Three (85): Blake then proceeds to kiss his handcuffs off. Apparently power is not just to make someone swoon but manipulate matter both animate and inanimate to whatever effect he wants.

14. Finale (85-110): They escape kidnappers, rescue child and cat and return to headquarters and reveal traitor. There are now two vacancies at agency and they both get the job.

15. Final Image (110): Blake promises Trish he can make his kisses have other more stimulating effects, but the soporific ones will come in handy trying to get their kids to sleep at night!

Jacqueline Lichtenberg said...


VERY good, and I hope it draws some comments.

Yes, you need to work on the content of each beat -- BUT, you have demonstrated you have the knack of the OUTLINE. You've nailed plot-developing events in a staccatto tone with no frills.

This is excellent work and gives a good foundation for developing this backgrounding exercise.

So let's start with THEME because that's the sift/sort screen for what does or does not belong in the background.

Your THEME STATED is not a theme.

Here are 3 posts I did on THEME that may give you a better handle on what goes in that second "beat" on page 5 of a 110 page script (a little farther in on a 350 page novel, but the proportions are about the same.)




Read those 3 posts and see how they cause you to restate beat #2, THEME STATED.

Once you have the theme statement, we'll see how that shapes and molds the background to cradle the story.

I found your story fascinating to read. It's very different from what I had in mind, but that's the POINT of this exercise.

Let's see what KimberAn comes up with. And maybe someone else will take a shot at it.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

Jacqueline Lichtenberg said...

Oh, and ozambersand, you got the beginning, middle, and END neatly!


ozambersand said...

Thank you for your comments so far Jacqueline!
I often come out of a movie thinking “What was that all about”. Probably because whatever “theme” they had in mind, didn’t get carried through clearly enough in the world building and dialogue.
Does the theme relate in any way to what we used to call, “the moral of the story”?
You stated: “THEME … that's the sift/sort screen for what does or does not belong in the background.” Do you mean “background” as in setting or motivation of characters?
If the latter, would I be correct in rephrasing it to say: the theme is why they are doing what they are doing and once this is established, it shapes the dialogue and interactions between the different characters.
I have read those blogs and need to check to see if I understand what you are saying, so is this what you mean?
If for example my theme was:
Never under-estimate your opponent.
Blake under-estimates Trish’s ability to escape the trunk. She is happy to point this out to him as soon as she can, however, she also under-estimates his powers. Both proven wrong.
They are both prone to making snap judgements about people. She dismisses his ability and him without any attempt to get to know him.
This would lead to them both needing to learn to look under the surface . This could be explored and put into practice during the final section when they look under the visible clues as they try to escape and find the complexity behind it.
It would allow more and more facets of who they are being unveiled during the plot, ie surprising insights, the character was aware of but the reader and the other people present weren’t.
The first section could probably stay as written as the theme is there to some extent. He smirks at her as he thinks he has won. She feels smug because she got out and assumes he is the enemy. I would probably get rid of the last sentence and replace it with:
“She ashed the gum with a flash of power, slammed the lid and strode the length of the car, one hand trailing the upswept fin. She was even more resolved to get that job no matter what Mr-“Kiss till you swoon” did.
However, if I made the theme:
Coming to terms with your enemy/fear and learning to cope with them
This would have more angst and have more inward driven moments.
It would make it more important to build up the animosity between them at the start. It would also a require a section where they could find common ground so they could learn to relate to each other and overcome their differences. (A pet theme of mine).
It would also need a slight re-write of the first section so that the theme of “coming to terms with her ability” in the past is included eg:
“Closing her eyes and grimacing, she drew on the power she knew she had inside. She twisted her fingers until she had a bit of rope between them. With a tiny, delicate push, she burned the rope, scorched her flesh, burned some more and severed the rope.
Once, her ability to do this would have caused her many sleepless nights, but now she could accept that being able to summon a small blowtorch at will did have its upside.”
I would delete the last sentence again unless the car (with accompanying super powers) becomes a character in its own right:
“Local urban legend had it this car had two hundred fifty ghosts under the hood and vampire blood in the tank. It was a whole lot more than that.” Would morph into:
“She ashed the gum with a flash of power, slammed the lid and strode the length of the car, one hand trailing the upswept fin. Visions of what she could do to remove that smirk from her captor’s face swept through her mind as she left the carpark.”
After reading the second blog, I hesitate tell you this, but I have had a story in my mind for 5 years and have found it really hard to work out what to do with it, where to start! (Sound familiar?!) The advice in the blogs you referred me to have been really helpful in seeing it can be done.
However, I fear I have a lot of learning to do first. My plot is all there! The characters, their back stories, the theme/sub-themes etc even (now that I know what it is, lol) I just need to write it
I do believe I can see the “connection between the unique and the archetype”. As that is what made me choose this particular idea in the first place. I need to learn how to depict that connection.
I can understand the feelings/motivations of the characters I want to write about but am not sure how to express them. You have written, time and again, that conflict dialogue is the way to express these feelings. However, this is where I feel I am stuck in a quagmire of my past. I am the epitome of the objectivist that Dwight Swain’s talks about at the start of his book. I am very much a “Give me the facts man” person. I can analyse and deconstruct till the cows come home, but am not much good in the opposite direction ! No creative writing background. No English Lit background.
Your advice is to “read about one of these skills (Worldbuilding, Description, Dialogue, Action, Suspense, Exposition (yes, you need exposition, just not in lumps), Pacing, Dramatizing, Characterization, Motivation, Conflict, Resolution, Climax, etc etc)” and learn how to do each in practice.
I have bought (but not finished studying yet) “Techniques of a Selling Writer”. I have been avidly reading (and copying) info and advice from Alien Romance blog, but I would appreciate some guidance on where and how a “plotser” should start to do the above. Does it matter which of the above you do first?
Should I take my unwritten Opus Magnus’s themes and try them bit by bit in alternate settings as practice?
I understand that I am now waaay off topic. I am happy for you to edit this comment to what is relevant to the blog then send me an email for further discussion (if you have the time)! (My email is abailey16@optusnet.com.au)

Jacqueline Lichtenberg said...


Yes, "moral of the story" is the theme if there is one. Some stories don't have a "moral."

The THEME is (as the word suggests) something that recurs and recurs throughout the "piece." The THEME SONG that identifies a product.

In a Romance, usually the theme is some subset of "Love Conquers All" -- that's the envelope theme song that identifies the genre.

Under that, there can be a thousand statements about or derived from "Love Conquers All."

The theme is what the story is ABOUT, yes (and yes, when a film fails, that puzzlement results - or sometimes, the artist was aiming to produce that befuddlement to make you think.

For mass market publishing and high budget movies, "background" generally identifies the genre.

That is the Western has a background SETTING of The Old West, which sifts the possible stories down to action/adventure, man vs nature, outlaws, farmers vs. sheepherds, etc. There's got to be horses and tough-tough men. LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE wasn't exactly a "Western."

The 'background' is what is NOT EMPHASIZED OR EXPLAINED because the consumer is expected to know all about it and would be bored if you explained it.

In SF you have to explain the background without boring the reader/viewer!!! That's why it's a difficult genre.

So "backstory" is BACKGROUND.

Motivations are in the background in some genres and foreground in others.

Let's look at your two (valid) approaches to a theme for this story.


OK, then you need a Combat Zone for your background. And it should (because it's BACKground) be familiar to the reader who would want to read this story.

Could be a Board Room, proxy fight for a corporation, a Family Will Reading in an old mansion and the lights go out, Iraq door-to-door foot soldiers being surreptitiously aided by real magic or Alien Science.

For "don't underestimate" you need a combat zone background.

It also determines the MIDDLE point of the story -- total failure as a direct consequence of under estimating (and yes, neat trick to make it on both their parts).

It determines the BEGINNING - the point where something happens when they meet that tricks them into underestimating.

It determines the 1/4 point -- where the THEME IS STATED and some CONFIDANT imparts the warning, "You shouldn't be so cock sure of yourself. You're not being objective here."

It determines the 3/4 point -- the point where one of the main characters twigs to what they've missed, what they've underestimated.

It determins the END -- where the second character learns by ignominious failure.

Which brings me to the second point where you need to adjust what you put into the Beat Sheet.

The B-STORY is the story-arc where the main character interacts with a confidant, or third party, -- and that interaction both reveals the inner-conflict of the main character and eventually contributes the missing piece to the CLIMAX that solves the problem.

There's one Superman movie where Lex Luther's mis-treated secretary does him in at the end because of her dawning perception of the moral issues underlying the plot. That's the B-story.

I'm not good at B-story yet.

So back to THEME. Theme determines the BACKGROUND because it's easier to convey a thematic statement in one background than another. Theme also determines the foreground - what you spend most of your time showing rather than telling. Theme determines the perspective and the pov character -- it also determines the set decoration via the ART of creating "atmosphere" and underscoring the emotional tone of a scene.

---------SECOND THEME----

Coming to terms with your enemy/fear and learning to cope with them

That is not a theme. It doesn't say what you THINK or MEAN or FEEL (you not the reader) about this issue. So you can't use it to generate or sift and soft parts of the story.

A theme might be, "Facing fears directly is the only way to mental health" -- or possibly "Facing down a fear that's too monstrous for you is the path to a life in an assylum." Or mystically, "Facing the Devil without means learning to love the Devil within." Or "Your fears are never out there; they are within you."

Once you decide what you have to say, then you delete or throw away everything that does not support your argument. It's like writing a term paper -- you have to narrow the universe of discourse and make JUST ONE POINT about the subject.

On the Epic Novel you're incubating, very possibly the reason you are stalled on some of it is that you are missing a character.


You need to structure into the piece the two polar opposites that will conflict to generate all the ACTION which will show the reader what you are talking about.

Very likely you will have to take your main POV character whom you know very well, in depth, and factor that character into two distinctly different characters, and let them TALK TO EACH OTHER.

That character whom you factor out of your main character is the one living the B-story -- the confidant or thorn-in-the-side or lover or mistress --

Remember the TV series Gunsmoke? Kitty is the B-story.

The B-story cradles and highlights the main story, gives us insight into the main character without shifting the POV.

Most writers who float their POV wildly just haven't learned this trick of factoring characters.

Gene Roddenberry always said that Kirk, Spock, and McCoy where three parts of HIMSELF (of the writer), and that's why they "worked" so well.

That's what you have to do to the main character of your epic.

Oh, and the THEME generates the title. When you "know" the title, you know everything.

So your next task is to choose one of the themes you've discovered in the material and generate the background to match the foreground (like an interior decorator -- this is art).

Then find your B-story.

Re-do the beat sheet and put in the background.

Post it here when you're ready.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

ozambersand said...

I think I am beginning to see the light! Theme is the essence. Once you have a theme and background for this, the story almost writes itself.
Background: two applicants for a place at the Xavier Institute for Higher Learning (the X-Men school). Locations for different parts: Start (boot of car), Xavier’s mansion, driving around in Cadillac, isolated area with building they have to escape from, Xavier’s mansion.
7: B story - Professor X or Cyclops acting as teacher at the school. During their initial welcome interview they get a reminder that their powers are still new to them and they have to respect that fact and warning them to: Know yourself/know thine enemy
8: Cyclops sets task to rescue cat
9: Cyclops contacts them to tell them about kidnapped child
12: Blake remembers advice from Professor X at start about knowing thyself
14: Debrief at headquarters with Cyclops and Professor X
Building on structure I have already set down, using the theme of “Don’t underestimate” (leaving it a bit more open ended). If I write down all the aspects of this theme, I get phrases/words like:
Snap judgement, bravado, risk, cocksure, youth, taunt, lack of respect, misplaced confidence, not understanding implications, hiding a deep seated feeling of inadequacy, emotions overriding objectivity, luck, immaturity
versus phrases like
opposites to above plus, being objective, know exactly what you are capable of, recognizing limitations, accepting help, teamwork, motivation, preparation, learning from mistakes, responsibility, respect
The phrases can then be illustrated in the action or in the dialogue.
Also rather than have two protagonists with same problem (ie underestimating enemy) maybe have one understanding lesson about enemy earlier but underestimating their own abilities, eg Blake not being aware until he is at his lowest point that he can do more. This allows for Trish to do actions from first lot of phrases while Blake cautions against it.
OK Have I understood what you were suggesting I do?
My problem is that I find the terminology confusing. I have a problem reconciling the phrase “B Story” with a character. Same way, I get confused between background (as in location, set description) and back story.
Second problem, I am concerned that writing the above would just be writing one of my pet hates ie “paint by numbers” Hollywood/TV stories. One of the reasons I don’t watch a lot of TV is that the stories are so predictable. Sometimes it seems as if there is a “theme of the week” and every TV show (particularly soaps) explores the same theme (eg someone has breast cancer) and each plot seems derived from the same building blocks. Or am I trying to run before I can walk?!

ozambersand said...

(Been checking up Snyder's B story on the web)! So the A story is my action story, trunk/school/rescuing cat/child/beating the enemy
and the B story
is the lessons they learn while doing that about the theme (not underestimating enemy/yourself)
Is that right? - so Cyclops is a character in the B story not the B story per se.

ozambersand said...

More podering about B story.
Given that it is an important concept that the protaganists at the end have been changed from who they were at the beginning because of the theme. Is it true that usually the character who drives the B story isn't changed?
Looking at examples: Cyclop's teachings wouldn't change, Kitty's love is a constant, Gandalf's wisdom is the same particularly his belief that small things can change the world.
I found this synthesis sheet helpful: http://www.blakesnyder.com/downloads/synthesis.pdf

Jacqueline Lichtenberg said...


DEFINITELY you are seeing the light and it is not a train at the end of the tunnel coming toward you! The sun is rising.

You have used THEME to build a world to cradle the A story and generate (naturally) the B-story (Cyclops). Yes a teacher can be the B-story character.

And yes, you have to toddle before you can run. Mastering the structure of those TV shows you hate is the coolie labor needed to become a professional commercial fiction writer (in any medium). Don't copy them, but learn how they accomplish what they accomplish because that's what is commercial.

It's like spending hundreds of hours practicing scales before you can give a piano concert at Carnegie Hall.

I explain it like this. Like any craftsman a writer must have a toolbox full of tools they have mastered using. Just because you lug your toolbox onto the jobsite does NOT mean you take out every tool to use on every job.

The point of mastering all these tools is so that you can look at a job and select the exact tool to use to do that job PROFESSIONALLY (with dispatch, elegance, success, and in a cost-effective manner.)

Reverse engineering those (I agree) distasteful TV shows is the work needed to master the tools used to create them. That does not mean you will spend your life writing that stuff. The same tools can craft other things.

When you are master of those tools, you will use them smoothly and naturally where the TV shows use them crudely and transparently (which is what you hate about them - their contempt for the audience - or what seems like contempt because the truth is, you aren't a member of their target audience).

THEME is a tool. BACKGROUND is a tool. PLOT is a tool. BACKSTORY is a tool. etc.

Since you've just seen how the THEME generates the story AND it's appropriate background and backstory, you now need to practice that with a dozen or two throw-away characters like Trish.

You won't be able to do it reliably until you've just churned out the practice.

NOTE: the B-story character should "arc" (i.e. change) so that the action the B-story character takes at the end was not available to him at the beginning (because of his/her character) -- otherwise the plot comes out "contrived." Or thin. Or full of holes. LIKE THE TV SHOWS YOU HATE!!!

In fact, all the characters should "arc" -- which means to develop along lines characteristic of their individuality, their situation, their available options. They have to make choices that have consequences that narrow their options, and the character has to learn a lesson from the results of his/her choices then demonstrate (at the climactic moment of the A story) that they have learned that lesson and will pay the price.

As for the terminology I'm using here -- it's pretty standard, but every book you pick up will have terminology that is original with that author.

(so originate your own labels for the components of a novel or screenplay -- the components are the same no matter what teacher you go to; the terms vary markedly and often the same word is used by two people to refer to different story components. Different industries as illustrated below with "setup" and "payoff" refer to the same component by different terms.)

So as I'm using it here, BACKGROUND means the things about the setting, place in time (Regency England; galactic war), and maybe the Character's position in that world (Prince of Wales; Starship Captain) are things you don't have to labor to convey to the reader. They are IN THE BACK, behind the plot and behind the story -- in the spot where you, as an artist, do NOT want your reader's attention focused.

Your note that says Cyclops would be a character "in" the b-story is not correct. What you've divided there is the Plot from the Story.

In my terminology, plot and story are not the same. I did several posts on that subject on aliendjinnromance.blogspot.com

PLOT is the sequence of things that happen, EVENTS. Events must be diplayed in a because-chain to make a plot. PLOT = BECAUSE Because Obama was elected President, Stem Cell Research will be revived, and because of the research Somebody will be cured of paralysis, and then be elected President. PLOT. EVENTS. BECAUSE.

STORY is what those events mean to the characters emotionally, spiritually, psychologically, or in life. It's also linked to Because and is the result or cause (motive) behind (BEHIND) Events in the Plot.

Because Obama fulfilled his lifelong dream to be President, he has discovered that he doesn't know everything and can't do everything at once. Now, he doesn't know why he can't seem to hire enough of the right people to fully staff his administration. "Oh, why are the people I admire tax cheats?" The Events leading to his discovery of the answer to that question is is STORY. The Events themselves are the PLOT.

The BACKGROUND is President and White House and Recession and Bank Crisis and Middle East. Everyone reading the story knows all that.

The FOREGROUND is winning election, choosing and hiring people, admiring people, being admired, spending political capital, making risky choices, living with the HUGE consequences.

Look at a painting, say a portrait -- Mona Lisa. The chair, the blurry sketch of buildings and hills, sky, even her dress is BACKGROUND. The FOREGROUND is her face and hands.

Take a genre - Urban Fantasy - the URBAN part is background, the FANTASY is foreground because you have to explain the laws of magic etc in that universe and to be worth explaining they have to generate plot.

STORY is the character's personal experience and responses to the things that happen - the psychological and spiritual lessons learned. (The story of a man who falls in love with a thief only to discover the folly of attempting to reform her and decides to learn her craft and join her.)

The BACKSTORY is all that went on before the plot begins, the things that happened that made them what they are.

BACKSTORY - The son of an ex-Nun and a seminary student who married for Love, falls in love with a thief and learns the folly - etc.

Who his parents were is backstory -- they never appear overtly in the novel, but their presence is in every word he utters, every decision he makes whether he knows it or not. You don't have to tell the reader the BACKSTORY (often it's better if you don't -- that's why you need all these other tools, so you'll have other ways to convey the information where necessary).

But you have to know the backstory to keep everything in the novel consistent and believable.

The B-story is the story arc of a character who is a confidant or intimate-enemy of the A-story's main character.

As I pointed out previously, the B-story character is often the last invented and is a sub-set or factor of the A-story main character -- someone he/she confides in and spills his guts to.

The A Story main character pours out their heart (in a few choice lines) to the B-story character, thus informing the audience what's inside the A-story character that maybe even the A-story character does not know.

Take Cyclops your B-story -- he has one student who gets "don't underestimate" and one who does not. What does he learn about CHOOSING STUDENTS? In the climactic action, he has to TAKE THE FIELD and RISK HIMSELF in a way that is ACCEPTING RESPONSIBILITY for his error in taking on the student who is blind to the enemy's strengths.

So at the point where you introduce Cyclops and the B-story, Cyclops denies all culpability in choosing the oblivious student, and thus all responsibility for that student's fate. He washes his hands of the matter. "You will die in the field soon enough, and I don't want you to take any of my real valuable agents with you. So you two are stuck as partners. Go get each other killed and get out of my hair."

PLOT EVENTS endear them both to him (the A-story character pours out her heart to Cyclops and Cyclops understands her better than she understands herself -- this scene is where you use your BACKSTORY of the A-character and the B-character -- create viewer sympathy) endear them both to him in such a way that even a bastard couldn't turn his back.

CYCLOPS moves to save their sorry asses at considerable personal risk -- end song, "by your students you'll be taught." (THEME - NEVER UNDERESTIMATE THE WISDOM OF THE CLUELESS).

If I were writing it, I think Cyclops would sacrifice his life for these two.

That event becomes the BACKSTORY of these two agents for the SEQUEL.

So you see your theme "don't underestimate" reticulated through the B-story -- Cyclops underestimated HIMSELF.

THEME-THEME-THEME -- everything that goes INTO the piece has to be derived from the theme. If it's not derived from the theme, cut it and save it and use it in a different story.

"Breast Cancer" is not a theme to explore. It's half of a conflict. It's the villain to be fought.

See my blog post for 3-10-2009 at
http://www.aliendjinnromances.blogspot.com/ where I talk about crafting the HEA for a romance and highlight the halves of the conflict and how each piece gets chosen. Breast Cancer is half a conflict.

Matching themes for the Breast Cancer issue would be "live-live-live until you die!" or "each life is of infinite value" or "doctor's don't know everything" etc etc

That's why you see the ISSUE of breast cancer turn up over and over. It's BACKGROUND that doesn't need explaining to the audience. Then you can write almost any theme that matches the plot element "threatened with immanent death."

The writers need a familiar disease and a feared one, a serious one, but one whose seriousness you don't have to explain, to launch into a discussion of these themes. So they choose breast cancer because it's prevalent in the community they are writing FOR.

So now do another draft of the beat sheet by the numbers -- most of your plot would work, but the ending (where he kisses the handcuffs off) has to be generated by Cyclops, somehow.

Cyclops has to give him the "don't underestimate" clue that he CAN kiss off handcuffs - maybe in the B-story scene between Blake and Cyclops that parallels the scene between Cyclops and Trish?

Cyclops can't barge in and rescue them. They have to get out of this because they have settled their differences and formed a TEAM. The settling of the issue could be generated by Cyclops. And then Trish may motivate Blake to explore his ability to manipulate objects.

Locks and handcuffs (preventive barriers and limitations) are both derived from the theme of "DON'T UNDERESTIMATE" and belong to the symbolism bundle of the psychology of chronically underestimating.

There's an inner barrier against estimating correctly (a lock) and an inner barrier against giving yourself permission to unlock your potential.

ART IS SYMBOLISM. All the symbolism in a piece should be directly derived from the THEME, but the reader/viewer does not have to be let in on the artist's meaning.

Or Cyclops could change the dynamics of the plot by baiting their captors away from the scene, NOT KNOWING that Trish and Blake settled their differences.

Also the final escape has to include Trish and Blake rescuing the boy and cat. It has to come only at that final action scene.

Both Trish and Blake underestimate Cyclops (whom they believe is a desk jockey without balls to do real work) and Cyclops underestimates them and dies for it.

Since this is Urban Fantasy - maybe Cyclops dies, but Trish and Blake somehow use the properties of the magic Caddy to (maybe Cyclops ends up in the trunk?) revive him.

If so, then the properties of the Caddy have to be established (foreshadowed in a novel; "set up" in a film so that here in the end where Cyclops survives it's the "payoff" from that "setup." Different terminology for exactly the same craft technique. ) established in an action scene probably during FUN AND GAMES.

So the opening scene is Trish in the trunk -- the end scene is Cyclops emerging from the trunk alive after being really dead-dead.

Or some other variation.

The THEME has to direct the RESOLUTION of the CONFLICT.

These are the working, moving parts of all stories.

ALSO TAKE CLOSE NOTE: look what's happened to this story with the introduction of CYCLOPS! Do you see how you did that? Did you watch your brain create Cyclops as a story element? Do that again with the complex piece you're writing that stalled - and I suggested you factor the A-story main character to create the B-story confidant character and let the two talk to each other.

Do you see how Trish's story is telling itself when you started with even less about Trish than you know of your own universe? And Trish's story is telling itself because you created Blake out of the insides of Trish and then created CYCLOPS out of Trish, all created using the THEME you chose.

That's why your other story is stalled. It's missing a character that is required by the rest of the mechanism of the story.

The effect you dislike in those TV shows is that you can see the mechanism under the story, so it seems "too predictable" and therefore not interesting.

Your trick as a writer is to master the mechanics of building those kinds of clean mechanisms -- but HIDING THEM from your readers.

THE TWIST (another tool that is just as mechanical as THEME) is one way to do that. But even that can become predictable and transparent.

You must have a fully articulated skeleton under your story, but you must hide it with artistically fascinating flesh, SYMBOLISM.

Skeletons are craft anyone can learn. Selecting the flesh and arranging it is an art nobody can teach you. I'm already convinced you have that art down pat, and have just grasped the most important relationship among all the moving parts of a story - THEME-BACKGROUND INTEGRATION.

So let's see your final beat sheet by the numbers, showing how THEME generates BACKGROUND that showcases your STORY like diamonds on black velvet.

Show it to me just the way you laid it out the first time, only now you get to add a couple parags to each beat filling in the rest of the story.

Notice how you started with an opening scene I wrote that contained no THEME and no BACKGROUND and have generated an original story that is self-generating and easy to write.

As soon as you've mastered this THEME-BACKGROUND integration exercise, do a STRIPPED BARE OPENING just like Trish in the trunk for the story you want to write. Then do a Beat Sheet for that story you want to write, and create the B-story character out of the main A-story character.

Give it a working title, not the real title, because you'll re-do that beat sheet with each new technique you practice and master.

These exercises produce dozens, even hundreds of those easily write-able stories. You don't ever have to write them completely out (probably shouldn't though one day you may mine the material for usable bits) -- and mostly they will never have any real commercial value (i.e. couldn't sell this trash).

BUT the glorious, original, artistically astounding story that is your first sale or ultimate masterpiece will require every skill learned doing these exercises. And because you've done these exercises, you will find writing your own story a breeze and fun to boot.

So you can start that process by beating out your own story and just keeping it on file. Every parameter will change as you learn new skills.

The hardest thing about working with material you originate is that the part you love the most is the part you most likely must delete.

By working the beloved material in this outline form, you can convince your subconscious to let go of the part you love because it will be used in another story where it actually does belong.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

ozambersand said...

Wow, Jacqueline. Thanks so much for that latest post. I need to think things over a bit as I can't kill off Cyclops (he is a standard. main character in the whole X-Men series) but I do see what you are saying to do.
My main problem with my Magnus Opus is that it is fact and there were no B story characters. (In fact if there had been that would have prevented/solved most of my hero's problems as he had no one to discuss things with - ironic heh and this sense of isolation caused a lot of his problems!) He was a religious man though, so I could have him pray to God as his B story character. I need more writing practice first though - that sounds pretty heavy!
What I will do with that theme (about the consequences of making promises) is to take the elements from his story and put them into another time and place where I can create a B story character.
Meantime, I got distracted by finally writing a whole first chapter of another thing that has been whirling in my brain. Have done a beat and worked out a theme too - Betrayal can be unavoidable)!

Jacqueline Lichtenberg said...


Ah, well, that's why I used the trunk of the caddy to bring Cyclops BACK in the tag-end scene.

It's good exercise to work with fanfic in an established universe because once you do establish facts about your own universe, you will have to work within them.

Also, this exercise was diabolically designed to open the floodgates of creativity, so I feel triumphant that you spent time writing that new first chapter and its beats.

I'm an advocate of see one; do one; teach one and since there's so much yet for me to learn, I get a kick out of conveying a technique! I hope you will complete this exercise then use it to teach others.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

Jacqueline Lichtenberg said...


Read these 2 posts on Blake Snyder's blog in the middle of the Part 2 one he gives 10 Commandments of Excellence and under #3 (I hadn't seen this post when I concocted this exercise) Blake Snyder (author of the SAVE THE CAT series) says:

And that means insisting that in every story we tell — even an assignment we don’t “like” or is not ours — that we search for, and insist we “find our way into,” what it’s “about.” To do so, we must lay our message into the B Story. Do not proclaim your Good Intentions in the A Story, bury it subtlely, and powerfully beneath the surface in the “helper story” that helps your hero, and us, learn the lesson. Billboarding your Good Intentions in the A Story is a bore, but not addressing meaning in the B Story is half-finished work. To find meaning is to find inspiration, and only art snobs refuse to find it in assignments and genres they think are “beneath them.” The truth is we can find meaning in any story, but it is up to us to insist we find it in every story we tell.

It's ALL IN THE B-STORY where you excell and exceed limits in story-telling.

Blake's posts are:


and part 2

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

ozambersand said...

Thanks for all the good stuff Jacqueline. Lots to ponder as usual. I thought I posted this last night. Please delete if it is a double post.
1. Opening Image (1): As written by Jacqueline, finishing earlier back: She lay in the pitch dark, smelling every pizza she'd ever carried in the trunk of her 1962 Cadillac and blessed the writers of the TV Series Forever Knight.

2. Theme Stated (5): Never underestimate Your Opponent

3. Set-Up (1-10): As she is waiting in trunk, she flashbacks to how she got there. Advert calls for people with “super” powers to apply for remaining position in Professor Xavier’s X-Men Academy. Trish (city girl) discovered when she turned 13 that she had the power to generate flame from her fingers. She drives to Salem, the day before interview and meets Blake (a country boy)

4. Catalyst (12): After a few Bacardi Breezers, Trish tells him she is going to apply for enrolment next day but doesn’t disclose the nature of her power. Blake doesn’t let on he is going for same position.

5. Debate (12-25): (Will she succumb to setback) As they leave bar he kisses her and she swoons (his secret power!) and he bundles her into trunk of her own Cadillac, so that she will miss deadline. Then follows rest of Jacqueline’s opening from: “Finally, she heard the crunch of gravel under booted feet, then silence.”

6. Break into Two (25) “She ashed the gum with a flash of power, slammed the lid and strode the length of the car, one hand trailing the upswept fin. She was even more resolved to get that last position, no matter what Mr-“Kiss till you swoon” did. She arrives at interview on time.

7. B Story (30): Professor X welcomes all the applicants and introduces Cyclops who will set each of them a task to accomplish. He reminds them that their powers are still new and they have to respect that fact. He warns them to: Know yourself/know thine enemy

8. Fun and Games (30-55): Trish and Blake are called aside by Cyclops and discover that the school had been watching all applicants prior to arrival and were aware of incident in bar. To teach them that sometimes they have to learn to work as a team, they will have to work together. Their task is to rescue the school cat which has been kidnapped and a ransom note left saying the cat will be released on delivery of $100. Their task is for one to leave the ransom money, and collect the cat which will be left in exchange. The other is supposed to wait in the background with the Cadillac so that they can follow the pick-up. Once they discover location, they are supposed to contact Cyclops and let him know. On reaching the drop off point, Blake leaves ransom money and picks up cat, while Trish remains out of sight in Cadillac. Trish picks them both up. They put the cat in the back and bicker constantly as they drive while following the pick-up person. Trish worries that the task seems too easy, Blake teases her, threatening to kiss those worry lines away.

9. Midpoint (55): When they reach location, they ring in to Cyclops to report. He recognizes location and realises it is the lair of Mystique who had turned herself into a cat to lure Trish and Blake into a trap.

10. Bad Guys Close In (55-75): Mystique morphs from cat form to her usual blue self (her power) and Trish and Blake are captured. It turns out Eavesdropper (one of the senior students at Xavier’ school who can hear through walls.) is actually one of Magneto’s men posing as a student and notifying Magneto about potential new recruits. He had overheard them being given task. They are tied up in cellar and told that they will be used as bait to lure Cyclops into their trap.

11. All Is Lost (75): They are offered places in Magneto’s equivalent school. Mystique particularly targets Trish because of her fire power. Says with training she can become really strong. Plays on the way Blake talks to her and queries whether she wants to work with people who have so little respect for her abilities that they lock her up in car trunks. Mystique ignores Blake and laughs about his swooning kiss power. He just glowers and keeps silent. Trish refuses to join Magneto’s group.

12. Dark Night of the Soul (75-85): Cyclops arrives and is met at door by Mystique who has made herself look like Trish. She convinces Cyclops to help her rescue Blake, but as they enter he is over-powered, knocked out and imprisoned with the other two. All their arms are bound behind them in metal handcuffs so Trish can’t burn anything and Cyclops can’t remove his glasses to release his powers. Their captors leave them to contact Magneto to find out what he wants done with them.

13. Break into Three (85): While locked up together, Blake apologises to Trish for locking her in the trunk. Admits he was jealous of her powers. Trish forgives him and admits that despite his teasing she really does like him. They kiss.

14. Finale (85-110): Cyclops regains consciousness and watches them. He queries why Trish didn’t swoon that time. Blake replies that he has to want to make them swoon for it to happen. Exasperated, Cyclops asks him what else he can make happen when he kisses and Blake admits he doesn’t know. Cyclops tells him it might be a good time to see if he can manipulate his lips and tongue to unlock handcuffs. Blake does and finds to his surprise that it works. Apparently his power is to manipulate matter both animate and inanimate to whatever effect he wants. They escape Mystique’s lair and return to headquarters.

15. Final Image (110): Blake and Trish denounce Eavesdropper. Cyclops apologises for getting them into a situation which could have killed them. Professor X points out that a lot of rash judgements were made and everyone learnt a lesson, even their captors for under-estimating Blake’s abilities. There are now two vacancies at school so they can both enrol. As they leave Professor X’s office, Blake asks Trish if she would help him with some kissing homework. He wants to see what other effects it could have.
Didn't kill Cyclops and resurrect him as it wouldn't have rung true with rest of X-Men concept (ie no magic). Felt it was better to have an enemy exhibiting same fault. Also pulled back on the original HEA ending as they are just teenagers.

ozambersand said...

Jacqueline, I have a question about Snyder's beats.
Are the break points 6, 9, 13 designed so that you could have commercial breaks? ie a cliff-hanger or mini climax?

Jacqueline Lichtenberg said...


The "beats" in the beat sheet are explained in detail in Blake Snyder's books SAVE THE CAT! and SAVE THE CAT GOES TOO THE MOVIES. I recommend the second one which shows you how to "beat" several famous movies you probably know.

Your flashback is in the wrong place -- that early in the story, it'll lose the reader's interest (viewers too). We don't need to know how she got in the trunk until she counter-attacks, and at that point she'll have someone to talk to so you can make it plain without actually TELLING.

You've done something MOST beginning writers CAN'T and avoided doing what they usually do.

You've given a good PLOT OUTLINE (OK, it's not ready to write yet, especially as a film script, because the opening part doesn't work right).

What you haven't done is create the background -- but you are relying on a known background (which is FINE if you have the background in your own mind).

This is just notes about what you would write, not anything for others to see, so it's OK not to put down all you know.

I think you're visualizing this background very well.

And I think you've done all you can do with this exercise, so next you have to write a few paragraphs of the opening springboard of a story for yourself, then do the exercise over again.

Don't post that here -- it could turn into something publishable one day, so you don't want to blow the copyright by posting it online.

The object of this exercise is two-fold. A) see what happens when you start with a dynamic situation fraught with questions, and just answer those questions to fill in the background. B) to learn to work this puzzle backwards -- to take a universe you invented that you know too much about, and see how to build a bare-bones springboard opening WITHOUT any background AT ALL.

After doing all that worldbuilding, most writers want to tell the reader all about all these important things you have to know before you can understand the story.

This exercise is designed to show you new techniques for avoiding dumping that expository lump at the beginning before the story starts.

You got tempted into that with your flashback is which is a guaranteed story-stopper at that point in the narrative.

Here's one way to do it.

You could have the next scene after she gets in the car be where she walks into the meeting room just behind Blake, sidles around him, sees the AUTHORITY FIGURES watching her, surreptitiously sticks a foot out and trips him.

He falls flat, and she helps him up, and whispers, "That for locking me in the trunk of my car!"

SHOW DON'T TELL. Do it in scenes, keep the narrative driving FORWARD even in a flashback.

You're doing well with this -- now try it on a universe of your own.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg