Telling a good story is often about planning, and a great tool I recently heard about is something presented on Out on the Wire, a new story workshop podcast series about making stories, step by step.
Cartoonist Jessica Abel & Co break down the principles of storytelling on the show really well, and while I’m going to present a slightly modified version of this key set of tools here, I really encourage you to go listen to their version of them and the rest of the series. Click on the image to the right here to stream the shows on Soundcloud. Or subscribe to the podcast here, and consider joining their private workshop group via the form you’ll find on this page to learn more and benefit from the community support of the hundreds of creative storytellers there too!
In episode #2 Jessica presents an Idea she learned from Rob Rosenthal at the transom workshop — the Focus Sentence & XY Story Formulae. For this post, I’m renaming the first as a Focus Statement, but otherwise I’m borrowing directly from their description here for each. These are relatively new ideas for me, but I’m sure they will prove useful the next time I start a new story!
As I mentioned In the podcast they call the first a Focus Sentence but then many examples use multiple sentences so that’s why I took the liberty to tweak the name here. Each tool is a short bit of writing, used to help clarify your ideas and make building the plot a lot easier. They serve as directions to the story for you to follow!
The Focus Sentence allows you to slot in elements of the story in order to identify the essential question of the story.
It goes like this:
Here’s a guide to what we would fill in each of these four lines to build the focus sentence.
1. Someone: A main character. The protagonist.
2. Does something.: The protagonist is in motion, in the middle of living his or her life.
3. Because…: The protagonist has a motivation–inner, or outer–for doing whatever it is that he or she is doing.
4. But: There is something that stands in his or her way. Something that makes this action difficult or problematic, and means that the outcome is unknown.
So here’s what that looks like as it would be written, to describe the story or the 4th episode of Star Wars.
1. Good boy Luke Skywalker is frustrated, living a boring life on a farm on Tatooine;
2. He buys some boring new farm androids, who turn out to have some kind of holo image hidden inside;
3. Because he’s a sucker for a pretty girl begging for help, he sets out to find “Old Ben Kenobi”;
4. But the Empire is looking for those same androids, and when Storm Troopers kill his family, it sets him on a path that will determine the fate of the galaxy.
The XY Story Formula is an even shorter statement of your project in two sentences.
It’s a way of looking at that character and conflict, or that character-free “topic”, and deciding how interesting it is—how much do we need this story to exist in the world? As a counterpart to the Focus Statement, it helps clarify your narrative arc, you’ve conflict.
Also, this kind of thing helps with that nagging problem of describing your story to others! What many call formulating an elevator pitch. How you would discribe your story to a movie producer if you had just a few moments in an elevator together to hook them. Here’s what it looks like
I’m doing a story about X.
And what’s interesting about it is Y.
X is a topic, any basic subject area, a person, an event.
Y is the special sauce that makes this, worth our consideration! It’s where most of the drama comes into it.
Y actually has to be interesting. It should be something surprising, unexpected. Or inspiring? It’s the why people are going to care about our story.
So to continue with the example of Star Wars episode 4:
X=A story about the coming of age of Luke Skywalker, as he faces off against the Emperor’s enforcer Darth Vader;
Y=He starts out a niav restless moisture farmer, but will come to lead the rebel alliance in destroying the Death Star!
Something like that?
Once you have these two short descriptions written down, I think you’ll find it’s a lot easier to start building a more flushed out plot.
A big part of why this will help, is in doing so you’ll have thought about how general terms the story will end.
And knowing how your story will end is more than half the battle. It’s a lot easier to plot out how to get there once you know where you want to go in the end.
To learn more about both ideas, listen here to the second episode of the show. I’m going to embed the series here too, right below! It’s all very good and will prove useful to you!