Category Archives: Writing Tips

Do You Want to Write a Tale or a Story?

The difference between a tale and a story is that a tale is just a linear step by step progression through plot events and character growth in which the next step can be anything at all, as long it makes logical sense, within the logic of the tale’s “universe that you establish as an author.

But a story is more like a mosaic. As with a tale, it progresses step by step. But in a story, each dramatic moment, each next step, is like a mosaic piece. So, as the story unfolds, as each mosaic piece is laid down, a bigger picture emerges – a message or moral – the story’s meaning, and the underlying “argument” made by the author in the story’s structure to convince the reader of the author’s professed moral conclusion about the proper way to think or feel in regard to the core issue of the story (the message issue).

As an example, you can look to Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” in which all the events that happen are part of the effort of the ghosts (and others) to convince Scrooge that his point of view is flawed and he should learn to embrace love, and joy, to be generous toward others, and to keep Christmas in his heart. If that message were not argued, scene by scene and act by act, Christmas Carol would be a simple tale of a mean old man who comes to care about others and finds joy. But the message – the structure that compels the readers to embrace that moral and make it a cornerstone of their own life, would be missing without the complete story argument.

I assume you might like to transcend writing a simple tale or series of events and instead create a story in which all the parts eventually work together to a greater purpose. If that is the case, I can guide you to organizing your story elements in a structural way that is consistent with the timeline you have presented but simultaneously fashions that “bigger picture” that can move your readers to change their own lives.

Here’s how we begin.

The single most important dramatic in a story (that is not needed in a tale) is the “message argument” between the main character (who begins with one world view, attitude, or philosophy) and an influence character who represents the opposing moral or philosophic view. The moral argument between them runs from the beginning of the story to the climax at which the main character either sticks with his original perspective or decides to change his mind/heart and adopt the alternative view of the influence character.

To help you get a good sense of this relationship, here’s a link to a short article I wrote about these two characters that includes a video clip showing these two character as they appear in several different well-known stories.

Here’s the article with the clip, and after you view it, read on for the first step in creating structure for your story:

Your Story Will Fail (if you don’t do this…)

Now that you have seen the clip, you can easily recognize the main character who begins with one outlook, and the influence character who pressures him or her to change – either by direct pressure or by influence alone.

The entire message of your story will hinge on whether or not the main character changes, and whether or not that was a good or bad choice. (Sometimes it is better not to change and to stick with our beliefs; other times it is better to abandoned our long-held beliefs, update how we see the world, and try a different tack.)

Not having a clear message issue and/or not having an influence character is the biggest source of structural failure in a story because it leaves the story without a passionate throughline and without real human meaning in the end.

So, your first step in creating a sound story structure after you have your main character is to specify your message issue and identify your influence character who has a moral or philosophical belief system in direct opposition to that of your main character.

Melanie Anne Phillips
Co-creator Dramatica

Learn more about the main and influence characters

Contact me about my story consultation services

Story Structure with the Muse in Mind

Story Structure can be a straight-jacket for your Muse. On the one hand, structure is necessary for a story to have a point or even just to make sense!  But on the other hand, structure tends to channel ideas down predictable paths and to rob a story of serendipity.

In my twenty-five years as a teacher of creative writing and story structure, I’ve developed a number of techniques to help you find your perfect balance between the rigors of structure and the free-wheeling flow of inspiration.

Here’s the short list:

Structure Hobbles the Muse

The Muse explodes outward into a world of passion and possibilities. As a teacher of creative writing for twenty-five years, my experiences with many types of writers tell me that one should never consider structure at … Continue reading

Let your Muse run wild

Let your Muse run wild The easiest way to give yourself writer’s block is to bridle your Muse by trying to come up with ideas. Your Muse is always coming up with ideas – just not the ones you want. … Continue reading

The Best Article I Ever Wrote On Creativity

Have You Lost Your Tale (and become one of the “Drudge People?”)

Drudge people.  You see them every day.  On the news.  In your town.  Outside your window.  Perhaps, even in your own home.

You can easily recognize them as they have lost their tales.  With no tale, they are directionless, shuffling endlessly forward with no destination.

How did they become Drudge People?  They were not born that way, oh no!  Each and every one came into this world as we all did, with a curious mind and an inquisitive spirit.  Life seemed an endless wonder and full of opportunities to explore.  Each new discovery was a tale to tell – a eureka moment so powerful that we ran to share it with our loved ones and friends, lest it burst within us before we could release the pressure of epiphany.

And then we started school.  Suddenly, there was regimen.  Conformity was rewarded, individuality punished.  Oh, not in in such direct terms (that would be abhorrent to our democratic ideals in these United States.)  And yet, we were all gently guided away from enthusiasm and into the soft protective embrace of routine.  Layer by layer, responsibilities, obligations, social sensitivity, compromise and procrastination became our shellac and armor in what we were constantly reminded was a cold and dangerous world.

Our education ended when we were fully indoctrinated, inoculated, and insulated from any original thinking and targeted instead on whatever mindless task was placed before us.  In short, we were ready for the work place.  And it was here the alchemist’s art of turning students into automatons was refined into the science of creating a population of  robot-slaves.

In a technically savvy world, the shackles must be so subtle as to be invisible to all except the jailers – the emperor’s new closed mind.  No tangible restraints can be seen.  But for those with a keen eye and a little patience, you can identify the Drudge People in our midst.  If you suspect someone, ask yourself, “When was the last time (Person Z) bolted into my cubicle aglow with something (he or she) couldn’t wait to tell me?”  When was the last time they posted something original on Facebook, other than their new high score on some life-eating game or a link to someone else’s pictures or a re-post of someone else’s thought or (most telling of all) simply clicked the “Like” button without writing anything in response?  You see, when you lose your tale you have nothing to say.  The Muse has run out of you and your creative juices have crystallized in your veins.

We become infected whenever we consume rather than create, when we opt for a virtual experience instead of an actual one, a recorded adventure as a safer substitute for the real thing.  The more we show up right on time for our daily coat of varnish, the less it becomes our shield and the more it serves as our prison.  After years of build-up, the constraints have become so thick that one may become wholly beyond redemption.

But there is hope for some of us, my friends.  If your eyes have been opened and you can now (perhaps for the first time) see the glossy membranes that are hardening around you, there is still a chance to avoid permanent incarceration.  You need to re-grow your tale.  This will not be easy.  Through atrophy, it has likely been almost wholly absorbed back into your system and re-tasked as raw material to be added to your casing.

Begin as thus: seek out original thinkers – those few individuals whose clarion voices resound out above the din of the mindless masses.  They are they outcasts, perhaps even the outlaws in our civilized society.  Listen to their call, but not too long, for it as easy to become lured by the siren song as it is to become deaf to innovation.

Take in these new voices just long enough to resonate within yourself – to build up a sympathetic vibration that begins, ever so gradually, to create cracks in your full mental jacket.  Then funnel the energy of those maverick rants into your core – recharge the cells at the base of your tale until, through the synthesis of many alternative ideas you begin to form one of your own.

All it takes is a single concept – something you’ve not thought or heard before.  Take note – this is a delicate and crucial time in the clockwork of your escape!  Do not let that concept simply fade away as you are distracted by the next mind-numbing diversion that drifts upon you from the mill of collective mundanity.  Nurture that embryonic thought, feed it with research and water it with conjecture.  Allow it to place roots in your mind, so strong that it will not be scoured from your consciousness by the next brisk breeze of life.  Grow it stout and tall until it bears fruit.  And as it expands, it will poke out through one of the cracks in your cage and you will find that your tale has begun to grow again.

But tales are not self-sustaining, they must be exercised regularly if they are to become and remain the rudder of your life course.  This can only be accomplished by putting them into action – wagging your thoughts.  And you do this just as when you were a child – you run excitedly to your loved ones and friends to tell them of your wonderful new experience or discovery.

You can do this in fiction.  You can do it in fact.  You can do it in music or pictures or words.  You will find that it quickly burns within you – an intensity of life you had either forgotten or perhaps not ever experienced.  And the more your engage it, the more brightly it shines, as do you.

And finally, when you are a self-starting engine of creativity, when life has become both raw and meaningful again, perhaps you will take a moment to cast a life line to another who is still not wholly beyond hope.  A life line such as this article I’m throwing to you.  But, for the love of God, don’t just post a link to this or simply “like” it without any original comments of your own, or you may be truly lost and doomed to remain one of the Drudge People forever….

–Melanie Anne Phillips