Story Progression—Writing Group Lesson

…And I’m back! Welcome to Outpost Dire, home to the shared Dire Universe of epic, grimdark fantasy, military sci-fi, thrillers, and more! Let’s dive right in.

There’s no single answer to story progression. This will be partially convoluted due to how many answers factor into the subject as a whole. There will be some bouncing back and forth to achieve this end. 

Progression of a story is based upon the momentum of achieving a goal or series of goals that resolve your conflict. You promise a conflict in the beginning, you must end the conflict. This can be done through external means of plot, internal confrontation or confliction of characters, or a change in the status quo of your environment. 

Pillars of Storytelling: Plot + Character + Setting (PCS) = Conflict/Change

Sub-pillars: Theme, want vs need.

Bottom line: Conflict, motion through goals, change.

Yes, And/No, But Method—Utilized for worldbuilding and plotting 

Story: MC needs to beat villain. If it’s a simple A to B, there’s no real story other than the conflict of the final confrontation. This is a simple, boring story. But if we need the MC to travel to another segment of the world, then the journey there presents conflict. 

Conflict 1: MC is robbed on the way by a band of women (Kings of the Wyld)—Great book! Highly encourage everyone to read. 

Does this robbery break the MC? 

Yes, and they return home to get more money. No, but it does set them back in financial means. 

MC continues on to the next town. MC suffers a knee injury along the way and can’t walk.

Does the injury make the MC give up?

Yes, and… No, but… 

Writing Group Answers: No, and they can seduce someone for pity | No, and they seduce a pilot | No, and build a splint, and hobble to the next town.  

MC meets a traveling wizard who is irritated with the MC for a sour deal in the past. The MC sold the plans to the Empire’s secret wizard tower to someone who outbid the wizard. 

Does the MC soothe things over with the wizard?

Writing Group Answers: Yes, but the wizard asks for a whole lot for the help | On the way to the main confrontation, the only bridge within 100 leagues has been washed away by flooding recently. 

Does the MC get across the river?

Writing Group Answers:  Yes, but the MC has to swim across the river while the wizard floats over.

At the final confrontation, the MC discovers the villain is the person who outbid the wizard so many years ago. 

Does this effect the need for a confrontation?

Writing Group Answers: MC has to fight wizard for the right to kill the villain | Yes, and the MC tells the wizard the truth | Alternative answers: enslave, castration, death, make the MC kill the villain and can’t/ dies in process, grows a conscience… 

The point of this exercise is bringing more conflict to the story. It’s no longer a dull affair of point A to B. Whether the MC successfully navigates all obstacles or not is almost “relatively pointless” to the main objective of adding conflict. Each success or failure brings more conflict to the story, hence progression.

Ask the Writing Group: Why do we lose readers? Boredom. Boredom can stem from many different areas, but they all come back to boredom. This is done through info dumps they don’t care about, too detailed in worldbuilding or backstory, technical jargon of a specific element (science), terrible prose, flat characters, etc. 

What brings about boredom to readers? 

  1. Plot development isn’t moving fast enough
  2. Character development isn’t strong enough
  3. Reader doesn’t understand what’s going on due to vagueness or vague prose on the author’s part. The author is hiding something.
  4. You, the author, has made the wrong promise of storytelling to the reader, or you weren’t clear enough early on, and the reader thinks you aren’t following through. 

Breaking Rule 3? Reader doesn’t understand what’s going on … but it isn’t due to vagueness or hiding something. It’s about dropping the reader immediately into the world. Lack of story immediacy.

The Dark Portal: I don’t really explain anything about the world in the book. It’s not relevant to the story. I wrote the book as if the reader should already know what that stuff is. It gives the tone of immediacy. The OT SW is also filmed this way. Nothing is explained about droids, lightspeed, lightsabers, etc. You’re expected to know. NO info dumps. 

Recall Reason 4: You, the author, has made the wrong promise of storytelling to the reader, or you weren’t clear enough early on, and the reader thinks you aren’t following through. 

Movie example that didn’t break the Boredom Rule #4: 

Cowboys and Aliens: You know almost immediately that there’s a sci-fi element to the movie when they blended the genres together. It doesn’t start as a western and then at the last instant, they throw in aliens. It’s there from almost the beginning with the weapon on his arm. It’s a promise. 

Recall Reason 4: (Broken Promises) You, the author, has made the wrong promise of storytelling to the reader, or you weren’t clear enough early on, and the reader thinks you aren’t following through. 

Movie Example that did break Boredom Rule #4: Why didn’t Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of Crystal Skulls work? 

  1. Invalid tone promises to audience: Indy survives nuclear blast in refrigerator.
  2. Indy’s son swings on vines with the monkeys.
    1. Both of these do not match previous tones from IJ movies—Fantastical/Whimsical vs serious.

Why were audiences disappointed from a story perspective? Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of Crystal Skulls:

  1. Aliens. Aka interdimensional beings. 
    1. Most audiences felt it wasn’t authentic and too modern or mainstream.
  2. What did Indy face in previous movies?
    1. Something supernatural from the Bible—The Ark of the Covenant. 
    1. Black Magic
    1. The Holy Grail—supernatural from the Bible
    1. How are the aliens too much of a stretch?

What Our Promise to the Reader Should be: Show the reader something awesome to whet their appetite long enough for us to develop the story.

Who does this well in books and movies? (ask the Writing Group).

Like him or hate him? J.J. Abrams—Mystery box storytelling. If you open a box, you must find the answer to close it again, or at the very least, another box pointing the way. The problem with JJ is that he never pulls the answer out of the box, never shows the audience, therefore the box is never closed in the audience’s mind, and therefore not fulfilling a promise.

We lose our readers by short selling the promise due to these two boredom rules mostly

  1. Plot development isn’t moving fast enough—bored.
  2. Character development isn’t strong enough—Boring characters. 

How can we combat these two crucial boredom points? 

My first and third rules of writing: 

1: Set the tone, get to the point, and slow down—don’t rush the small stuff.

3: Establish one of the following settings early in the story: physical, cultural, magical, spiritual, or morality (societal mores).

Story Progression is stipulating the specifics through character and setting (C/S), making headway through journey which is our plot (P), and the reward or payment for sticking with the journey (resolved the conflict). 

  • Promises to your audience: Tone, genre, plot, character. 
    • 1: Set the tone, get to the point, and slow down
  • Tone: Witty, fantastical, space opera, comedy, fiction, hopeful, mystery, suspense, adult, YA, grimdark, romance, etc.
    • 3: Establish one of the following settings early in the story: physical, cultural, magical, spiritual, or morality (societal mores). Or in this case: tone.
    • What books have great tone promises? THOLAC—Glyn and Hovath, Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself—Logan Ninefingers, The Obsidian Trilogy—The Outstretched Shadow—The city of a thousand bells and Kellen.
  • Genre:
    • In Harry Potter, do we ever find out why he’s the Boy Who Lived? How/Why did Voldemort mark him?
    • In OT Star Wars, do we learn why Luke lives with his uncle and aunt? Do we learn what Artoo is carrying? Why is it so important? Who is Darth Vader?
    • The Bearer of Secrets: what’s so special about Julie? She’s nephiliam, descendant of druids and archangels.
    • The Demon’s Fate: How/why did the crew lose their memories? The alien artifact is the cause, but the blame rests with the crew who inadvertently activated the device, triggering a memory wipe intended for the admiralty instead of them. 
  • Progress: Your #1 job as a storyteller is to give a sense of progress through signposts! 
  • Problems with progressIf your Character progression and story progression doesn’t align, people will treat the actual progression as a side plot, misdirect, or unimportant, and their focus will be on what your initial promise was, usually through the character. 
  • The best thing is when subplots augment the actual progress of a story even though they may feel like a sidebar initially. If you can tether them from the get-go, you’ll do well. 
    • The Bearer of Secrets: I have a Dark lord returning to start Wizard’s War II. Judas must stop him but doesn’t have an army or defenses. Enter the Krey storyline where they force march to Cape Gythmel, a small town directly in the path of Xilor, and the only entrance into their country. Then, the war starts there, and they’ve fortified the area and are waiting for him to attack. This is an example of subplot working in tangent with the main plot. 
    • When subplot doesn’t work: When elements of the story feel shoehorned in and don’t make sense or relevance to the actual progress of the story. Or the outcome of the side plot is detrimental to the overall goal of the story. If you choose failure of a side plot, then some progress must be made through character or environment. If you fail to deliver on all three … your side plot is meaningless.
      • The Last Jedi: Canto Bight sequence. The whole subplot is a red herring. Nothing happens. What they set out for, what they intended is never accomplished, and in the end, they are worse off than before the sequence started. It is never resolved and doesn’t have a follow through.
      • A subpoint to this: reason #4, Broken Promises: The Force Awakens set up many story elements and plotlines that were broken in TLJ: Why’s Luke on the island planet, what happened to Rey’s parents, what’s Snoke’s backstory, inconsistent tone and use of characters, unrealized potential in characters e.g. Finn and Captain Phasma. 
  • Payoff: Whatever you open with on your promises, you must close or twist them prior to the end of the novel, but you MUST answer them.

Different throttles speeds of progress.

Plot—When plot takes over, world building and character depth fall to the wayside. The pace is usually quicker because the reader can get a better grasp of the progression through actionable/measurable signposts.

Character introspection—The deeper into the character’s head you go, the slower the pace will feel unless there’s a moment of epiphany or change. In an introspective moment(s), there’s no action/reaction to what’s going on. These moments need to be signposted well in advance. 

Worldbuilding—When this is at the forefront, plot and character will drop to a crawl. It’s extremely hard to show plot or character progression through worldbuilding unless the character is reacting to it. E.g. Harry Potter going to Hogwarts or Diagon Alley. Setting is NOT the main point of storytelling. 

  • Worldbuilding is meant to enhance your story with realism but will never be the main staple. 
  • Worldbuilding makes your magical story more fantastical.
  • Worldbuilding reveals something about the world and characters, which can enhance the plot, but it will never propel the plot unless it is a man vs. nature storyline.
  • Worldbuilding is the backdrop for the Conflict/Change = Plot + Character + Setting (PCS).
  • Worldbuilding will kill all momentum for your story and make the reader grow bored after too much information. 
  • There comes a point when it’s too much, and authors tend to info dump all of it to show you how cool it is or how much research they did. The lighter you go on worldbuilding, the deeper your characters need to be and the more tension that needs to be in your plot. 
  • How much worldbuilding is there about Hogwarts? Really think about this. Each book/movie, we learn more and more about the school, but it’s never dumped on us. 

Story Structure—This will change the pace of your story based upon which method you use. A four-corner opposition story will have a different pace/feel than a three-act structure. Choose wisely for your method of storytelling. 

Short Story:

MICE Quotient—No story is ever a single thread, and if so, they’re boring. All stories in one shape or another are comprised of the MICE Quotient, from short stories to novels and epic tomes.

Millieu—Location 

  • The story opens and closes at a place. 
  • Conflict: prevents character from reaching their goal. Anything that prevents the character from entering/exiting said place is based on Milieu. 
  • The Dark Portal opens in milieu. 

Inquiry—Question-based

  • Story begins with a question and ends when the answer is provided.
  • Conflict: dead ends, misinformation, mystery 
  • Sherlock Holmes and murder novels tend to be this.

Character—Emotional/Internal

  • Begins with one type of emotion and usually ends in another, angst to happy.
  • Shift when the character has a new emotional state., new understanding of self
  • Have change backfire, fill with self-loathing.
  • Any coming-of-age story, romances

Event—Action-driven/External

  • Status quo is interrupted into a new status quo
  • Internal vs external threat.
  • Conflict: Don’t restore the status quo, eruptions, fight and chase scenes, etc

How do short stories—and all stories by extention—work?

            “I open at the close.” <m><i></i></m>

The Dark Portal: 

  1. Location: Darrovan arrives at the Dome 
  2. Character—emotional: Scared, paranoid, anxious.
  3. Inquiry—Is the Dark Portal an alien/sentient? Or is it a military trick?
  4. Inquiry—Yes, the Dark Portal is an alien bent on eradicating the planet.
  5. Character—A switch occurs from terrified to survival and escape.
  6. Location: Darrovan attempts to escape the Dome.

The Wizard of Oz

  • C—Dorthy dissatisfied as a farm girl in Kansas
  • E—Tornado event
  • M—Welcome to Oz
  • I—What do the red slippers do?
  • I—Glinda, the good witch, says “the ruby slippers will carry you home”
  • M—Dorthy leaves Oz
  • E— Returns to Kansas/Wake up from dream/Status quo restored
  • C—I don’t need an adventure/ there’s no place like home.

I hope you enjoyed this lesson I prepared for my writing group. Again, these are my notes I prepared for the class, and a lot is lost in the transit between the writing and oral presentation.

That’s it for this round, short and sweet. I shall return…

If you enjoyed this content, check out my books, The Bearer of SecretsThe Demon’s Fate, The Dark Portal, and For Heathens of Heaven on Amazon. All works are available on Kindle Unlimited, eBook, and print. Reviews can be found on Goodreads and Amazon.

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