Saturday, October 14, 2017

Obscuring the Story Form

In some threads of the forum, it has been mentioned that it seems like a good idea to obscure your actual story form in the final product. The reasoning behind this seems to be that we all know instinctively how any particular story mind would proceed (since it is "an analogy for a human mind trying to solve a problem) and (1) we don't want to read/watch predictable stories, and (2) get annoyed when we notice that someone is trying to make an argument even though we expected entertainment.

I thought about it for a while, and collected a few ways to hide the author's intent.


After reading Jim Hull's response to a letter challenging his anaysis of The Prestige, I came to the conclusion that hiding your true, deep Story Form behind a false, shallow one might be a good idea.

There are several ways of going about this, but a simple one would be to just take your real throughline configuration, twist it a bit, and only describe it down to the concerns (and maybe describe it as how the characters see it, and not where the conflict comes from). Whether this twisted version is similar or completely different, or working or broken, you have something that the audience might latch onto at the beginning, but which you take away at some point or the other.

A few examples

  • The Prestige: "OS Universe, MC Psychology, RS Mind, IC Physics." Turn this counter-clockwise and you get "OS Manipulation, MC Fixed Attitude, RS Activities, IC Situation," the suggestion of the challenge.
  • Zootopia: "OS Mind, MC Physics, RS Universe, IC Psychology." Turn this counter-clockwise and you get "OS Activities, MC Situation, RS Manipulation, IC Fixed Attitude." OS: Trying to catch the kidnapper; MC: Small bunny as cop; RS: Manipulating each other; IC: Bad Attitude.
  • The Incredibles: "OS Psychology, MC Universe, RS Physics, IC Mind." Turn this clockwise and you get "OS Situation, MC Activities, RS Fixed Attitude, IC Manipulation." OS: Superheroes are stuck as normals; MC: Bob does superheroing in secret; RS: Bob and Helen argue about their marriage and way of life 
  • (Captain America: Civil War: "OS Physics, MC Universe, RS Psychology, IC Mind." Turn this clockwise and you get "OS Fixed Attitude, MC Activities, RS Situation, IC Manipulation." OS: what people believe, do heroes need reigning in; MC: Every action comes to bite Steve back in the ass; RS: two friends are being pulled apart by the way the situation is getting out of control; IC: Tony manipulates everyone)
  • Othello: "OS Mind, MC Physics, RS Universe, IC Psychology." Turn this counter-clockwise and you get "OS Activities, MC Situation, RS Manipulation, IC Fixed Attitude." OS: Killing people; MC: The only black person; RS: Iago manipulates Othello; IC: Obsession with Othello.
  • Romeo and Juliet/West Side Story: "OS Physics, MC Mind, RS Psychology, IC Universe." Turn this clockwise and you get "OS Fixed Attitude, MC Manipulation, RS Situation, IC Activities." OS: Families passionately hate each other; RS: Star-crossed lovers. OR turn it counter-clockwise: "OS Situation, MC Activities, RS Fixed Attitude, IC Manipulation." OS: Families stuck in decade-old feud; RS: Lovers. 
Note how, for the twisted configurations, I used the simplified terminology. And that I generally tried to keep the MC Approach consistent (though not doing that might help obscuring even more. Would you assume someone is a Do-er, just because they're an athlete?)


If the audience knows who the Main and Influence characters are, how do we hide which one of them is going to change?

This might just be culture-specific, but if you read books on creative writing, most of them tell you that your main character (and possibly even all the other characters) has to undergo change. It is likely that your savvy audience would naturally assume that your main character changes*.

Thus, a Steadfast MC might be obscured by default... but let's not assume.
How can we hide this Story Point from unexpecting viewers? Stakes and Flaws.


Give your Changed and Steadfast characters the same amount of strengths and flaws, or make the Steadfast character more flawed.

We expect a character with flaws to overcome them by the end, and thus "change," as long as they're not a lost cause.

Some gurus say that characters only have two flaws: lack of courage or lack of compassion. While I'm not necessarily agreeing with the idea, these two flaws do provide potential for rather compelling arcs. Give your Steadfast character one (or even both!) of these flaws, and the audience might assume they are going to fill that lack by the end. Whether you fulfill that expectation is up to you, as long as you don't give the Changed character the same flaw (or if you gave the Steadfast one both, give the Changed one just one).


For both characters, changing and remaining steadfast should have positive AND negative consequences. There should be a reason why both options are viable after all. But you don't need to reveal all these consequences right away.

Give the Changed character plenty of reasons to remain steadfast, even if counter arguments keep piling up and overwhelm them by the end. The same but opposite could be done with the Steadfast character.

This is assuming a Success/Good Ending, but you can imagine how it would change if it were different. Plenty of good reasons to change, but remains steadfast anyway... too bad.

Problem-Solving Style

Problem-Solving Style used to be called "Mental Sex," with "Linear" being "Male" and "Holistic" being "Female."**

Simply giving the Main Character a different "Mental Sex" from their gender identity would obscure this Story Point just slightly. Though most people assume "Linear"/"Male" by default, so giving a cis woman this Problem-Solving Style is not that strange. Giving a cis man a Holistic PSS is, though other genders (including trans, gender-fluid and non-binary people) would arguably hide this even better.

Additional Thoughts

While I think that obscuring the Story Form is a good idea, I don't think one should do that for the whole story. Let the Story Points be ambiguous for maybe the first half of the story, but remove the ambiguity in the second half (as they're told, not necessarily as they happen).


* Note that both Steadfast and Changed Main Characters "change," in that they're not exactly the same as in the beginning. To use an analogy: A Steadfast MC is like a muted blue becoming a bright blue, while a Changed MC is a blue becoming yellow.
** I prefer the current terminology for various reasons. Mostly because I've grown up with four sisters and three brothers, and "male" vs. "female" thinking is just an incomprehensible concept to me. It doesn't tell me anything.

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