These rough notes are an edited summary of his Masterclass.
The good news is that the story has lasted millennia. Our human need for stories will continue.
We live in tension between curiosity and incorrect assumptions, and these two human traits fuel our need for stories.
Many years ago, an elderly screenwriter was my mentor and he taught that the most important thing was to 'Don't Tell. Show'.
If someone says, 'On my desk is a copy of the worst book ever written', our curiosity is engaged and the hint of a human problem is tantalizing.
Most surface assumptions we make about situations are incorrect.
A story satisfies these two strands of tension. To start a story journey we need that spark of curiosity to invite readers beneath the surface. But that is only the beginning of a storyteller's job.
We also want to empathize with the protagonist/s, to share in their emotions. Emotions are universal, and there is a fixed palette of them from which many mixed varieties may be used.
If a writer has done his/her job well, then emotions will be evoked in the reader, and an emotional connection made.
A story must have at least one character with at least one problem. Leave no stone unturned in finding solutions and obstacles.
Humans find problems endlessly fascinating, and yet strangely our top three missions in life are to be 'problem free'.
I like to write stories about characters facing big problems, but who don't get crushed by them. Some will just survive the problem, some will resist the problem, some will solve the problem or learn a way to live with the problem. The rule is: no matter how huge the problem, display the best behaviour of character.
Some stories don't have a complete solution, so they solve it by learning to live with the unsolvable or just survive the problem.
Think about a character with 2 problems that are mutually exclusive, so that they can only choose one to solve. For example: a character with the desire for his sibling to be cured of a terminal illness and a desire to be an only child again. A character like that is more interesting than one which has only one problem to solve.
Optimism is an important part of character, as is learning from mistakes.
Sometimes to solve a problem you need friends ('Misery Guts') or a bit of research ('Doubting Thomas').
Whenever there is an unsolvable problem a choice must be made, will it crush the character or let the character develop better?
When you write about the setting of your story, the trick is to find the balance between too much and too little exposition.
Make your author voice close to, but not the same as, your main character.
Do not delay any clue that a problem exists.
A story without a problem has no movement, no change, no options and no array of possible endings.
As soon as a problem exists, the exposition becomes easier to give – as long as the exposition is relevant.
Humour: I don't believe you can learn humour, it is something inbuilt. You can learn the techniques of humour, but that's about as far as it goes. Humour is worth experimenting with, to find out whether you have it or not. That's because people enjoy it, and it can also aid you in describing things quicker.
Character development: Up to a point a character will do what I think I would do. – unless I want them to have a particular experience or capacity for empathy. Sometimes I let them have a mistake or a moment of weakness.
Sometimes you have to let characters fail for their own good. All problems are opportunities for growth and development.
For me, character development is an intuitive thing. I do have a powerful sense of becoming friends with a main character, which often starts through their problems and their emotions.
My characters all have good hearts. It is very hard for me to write any other kind of character.
What doesn't work for me is creating a dossier for a character. Become comfortable with your own process.
I do outline my books, usually in 4 pages of text. But I let that outline be a map and not a done deal. Feel free to go off map anytime it feels right.
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