… Through the Theme of Violence.
I tend to make the mistake of waiting for an original story to come to me, believing any idea I can come up with from scratch won’t be worth my time and effort. But if I had a gun to my head and had to write (well) to save my life, I know one three-step approach that would keep me alive: choose a theme/angle, write a scene around my theme and then build out from that scene. This post is the beginning of a series in which I’ll illustrate ways you can take a single scene, build from it and be left with a completely original piece of storytelling. It’s very effective and requires the full participation of your protagonist.
But before you employ the three-step approach in your conceptualization process, it’s important that understand a few things:
- Your story will, in some way, be derivative. And that’s okay. Familiar genre tropes and/or narrative structures help your audience understand what’s going on and allow you to cut down on your exposition. You should aim to write a familiar story with an unfamiliar setting (Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings) as they tend to play to audiences better than unfamiliar stories with familiar settings (like Funny Games). An unfamiliar story with an unfamiliar setting? Well, you give me a successful example of that and I’ll come up with another 3 step approach called How to Come up with an Original Perspective on Reality Altogether. I won’t even give you 3 steps, just two sentences – Reincarnation. God’s giving original perspectives to every new-born.
- Your characters are the most important element of your story. A well-realized character can make an audience believe in anything. If something extraordinary takes place within a narrative, your audience (readers, listeners etc.) will need to see your character react to that extraordinary thing in a believable way to keep their disbelief suspended. You’ll also find that the more you develop your character, the more you develop your story because you’ll have to think in terms of events and scenes to develop a clear understanding of your character’s personality.
- Stories teach lessons. The ways you should look to be innovative with your story is with how it illustrates life lessons. It could even teach new ones. Your perspective on the world is shaped by your experiences and, as you may have noticed by now, everyone’s perspective is ever so slightly different. I believe our job as storytellers is to express the nuances of our unique perspectives within familiar frames.
And with that, we can begin with violence as our example theme:
Choose Your Theme and Angle
Have a clear understanding of your chosen theme and the kind of story you wish to tell about it.
As per the title, I’ll use violence as an example theme. It’s thrilling to witness and conclusive – your protagonist will either have to escape violence or endure violence through to its end. And violence is almost always used as a means to an end, very few people want it to last.
But an angle must be chosen. You can help yourself by first deciding whether you view violence as a necessary evil or something that needs to be completely eradicated from humanity’s nature. If you’ve decided the former then you can tell a story about the psychological effects of enduring violence. If you’ve decided the latter then you can either tell a story about the effects of enduring violence or a story about escaping it. However, for this article, I’m going to exemplify the former view – that violence is a necessary evil – and tell a story about the psychological effects of enduring it. I feel more comfortable approaching the theme from this angle, which is how you should feel with the angle you’ve chosen because the best writers write what they know.
Build Your Scene
Allow me to guide you through the process with an example. Think of a scene beginning with gunfire and ending with a high body count. Think about the lone survivor of that scene and how many people the survivor had to kill to be the last person standing. Was the survivor profoundly relieved or traumatized (going on to suffer from nightmare disorder and, eventually, ruin all of their relationships)? I imagine most of you are going to go with the latter. So, you now have a protagonist suffering from PTSD, someone you’re able to tell a compelling story about. Your story could be about your protagonist’s journey to sanity, told as a detailed illustration of how one can find and heal themselves after long being lost and fractured. But you don’t yet have originality; there are tonnes of PTSD narratives out there.
Let’s look at one of the many ways to solve this. What was the initial cause of the violent event your protagonist experienced (if they were not in the military – since that’s been done before)? Was your protagonist a gangster or an average, law-abiding citizen? If your protagonist was a law-abiding citizen, were they trying to be a hero or just trying to save their own life? And while you mull over the cause of their violent, pivotal experience, think about whether or not they could have avoided it. If your protagonist couldn’t then you’re telling a story about a lifestyle choice that led to misery. If they could have avoided the event then you’re tasked with telling a story about a single event changing their life forever. In which case, you’ll need your protagonist to win the audience over well before the event occurs. Well, you won’t really need to but it’s best you do. It’s risky having your audience engage with a protagonist who is in need of a near-death experience to become likable. Feature films have an easier time getting away with having unlikable protagonists but long-form stories, like television series’ and novels, struggle. You should also take into account that your protagonist’s PTSD will, initially, make them appear unlikable to your audience for a while.
Build out from Your Scene
So, assuming you’ve gone for a likable protagonist, you’ll now need to make this person a living, breathing being. You’re not just thinking about their age, gender and body type, you’re thinking about their personality and past experiences. Your initial scene will help with that tremendously, as the actions you wrote for your protagonist will actually expose aspects of their personality, which, in turn, will expose aspects of their past. You will be, in a way, unfurling who they are by addressing how they got themselves into the situation they’re in.
Two families are drowning out at sea. The rocky shore is swimming distance away, so one of the fathers attempts to save his family. However, he is obstructed by members of the other family, who are either clinging to him or his wife and children for life. Thus, in the process of saving his own family, he ends up murdering two members of the other family – a mother and her son – and leaves the remaining members to drown. The surviving family has lost one of their children to the sea (their daughter. They’re left with their son) and the father is at once grief-stricken and guilt-ridden over the murders he’d committed.
The surviving father’s suffering, post the event, has left him wondering whether or not he should have gone to such lengths to save his family (perhaps there was a way he could have put his own life on the line). So, I, as the writer, can only assume that this character is about to have a mental breakdown – which will lead to his family’s suffering. The fact that he was able to brutally murder a woman and her child to save his own tells me that he’s a very proud man of action. To become a proud man of action one has to have had past experiences or currently live a lifestyle that teaches action over inaction. So, now I’m asking myself about the father’s past experiences and lifestyle, exactly the kinds of questions I need to ask because my answers will tie into the narrative. You too will find that in building your protagonist you’re building your story. You’ll have a first act, in which you establish your protagonist’s personality traits, a second act in which you depict the extremes of your protagonist’s traits in a life-altering event (in my case, via the drowning scene I wrote), a third act about your protagonist’s suffering in the aftermath of that event and a fourth about how your protagonist overcomes their suffering. If they do. If you don’t see violence as a necessary evil then your forth act might be about your protagonist succumbing to their suffering. But that, in a nutshell, is the writing process.