Updated: Nov 19, 2018
"Want to write a story? Start with a foundation and build upwards from there. You never know, just like the Pyramids at Giza, your words may one day be the bedrock of civilisations."
And, just like that, my recent post Story’s Forgotten Foundation was brought to a close. Yet how do you go about developing a story from its foundations? And how can a story’s foundations guide you through the tumultuous events of story creation? In this follow up post these are questions I will attempt to answer.
Plot, character and setting: the three foundations of story, and it is no accident that the word ‘foundations’ was chosen to describe these core elements. If we look to architecture, a building without foundations will stand for mere moments, and a building without solid foundations will stand with no expectation to last. Foundations are where a building begins and are integral to its structure: build them as solidly as possible and the building will have the best chance of success. In exactly the same way, the foundations of story are integral to the structure of story, and the more solidly these foundations are built the greater chance your story has of standing the test of time.
In order to give your story the best chance of being exceptional, the foundations have to work together. Just like my previous post demonstrated how a story fails if any one foundation is missing, the quality of a story is improved when each foundation is pulling its weight to the best of its ability. The key here is harmony: the foundations all have to be singing from the same hymn sheet to point towards the same goal. A building’s foundations all need to be exactly level or the structure ends up on a tilt, just as the story’s foundations all need to be coherent or the story becomes muddled.
One way of ensuring coherent and solid story foundations is by starting with one foundation and building the others up around it. You do this by listening to what that foundation, and the story at large, is telling you. For example, last year I collaborated on a feature film script that we were to submit to a funding competition – the only requirement being that the film was set in the quaint Italian countryside. Hence, from this brief we were given our first foundation of setting: rural Italy. ‘Brilliant!' We thought. Given we had a setting, that narrowed down the choices available to us, and we naively believed the rest would follow quickly. It didn’t. Why not? Because we didn’t listen to that setting.
For the first few weeks of writing our rural Italy-based feature, we couldn’t quite figure out who our protagonist was. Or rather, we couldn’t match our protagonist to our setting. We had in mind an arrogant young girl who grew up in a small, rural village and was desperate to leave it because she believed she was worth more than it could offer her and, once she did, had life hit her hard – ultimately learning the lesson that you shouldn’t forget where you came from. The problem here was that her story demanded to be told by going outside rural Italy – the lessons learnt were from the protagonist losing herself in a big city – and this was not the setting we were going for. Hence, we needed a different protagonist: we went back to the drawing board.
In our search for a new protagonist, something hit me. Just like how we listened to the story of the young girl, whose story location demanded to be told from a city, I reasoned that we should listen to the location of rural Italy and see which person’s story was demanding to be told from there. Immediately a character jumped out as us. In the drafts of our young-girl-as-the-protagonist script we had a supporting character who was perfect: an old man who’d lived in the rural Italian village his whole life and was reluctant to redevelopment currently going on in the area. Bingo! This was our protagonist. His was a story we could tell entirely in the rural village and, better yet, already had a general outline of a plot for him right under our noses.
The key here was that we listened to what our setting was telling us. It demanded that, if we were to have the film entirely set in a small Italian village, we had to have someone who cared for that village as the protagonist. From there, the plot became about his love of the village almost destroying it. Listening to one story foundation – setting – quickly gave us the other two – character and plot – and with it enough of a framework to work within.
Which brings me to the true nature of foundations. When beginning to write a story, the possibilities are endless. You have no boundaries to the people, events or even worlds that your story can feature, and, as inspiring as this is, it can quickly become a burden. You can feel you have no direction and no idea of where to begin. To counteract this, building up from one foundation gives you a jumping off point: it gives you something tangible to hold on to and start narrowing down from. Know that you want your story to be about a cheesemaker? Great, you have your character already! But what about your setting? Well it’s unlikely that you’d set it entirely on a train (although not impossible, depending on your character) and so on. In this way, foundations can guide you as you create you write.
Pick a foundation and listen to it, for it will already contain the blueprint to your story that leads it on its way to standing strong enough to grasp the firmament.
See Part I of this article, Story’s Forgotten Foundation, here.
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