Story Development
© Jack Remick & Robert Ray. All rights Reserved.

Story Development—a 90-hour course divided into three units of 30 hours each:

  1. Foundations
  2. Scene and Plot
  3. Form

The core of story development is the dramatic scene. A scene is an action or series of linked actions taking place in a finite period of time in a single setting. King Lear howling on Shakespeare’s Heath is a scene; it’s over when the King stops howling and returns to throne room or bedroom or dungeon, depending on what’s happening in the plot.

Because they have time limits—time’s up, the action peaks, or the characters exit or die—scenes make useful building blocks for pacing the story. A love story starts with a First Encounter scene, where the lovers meet for the first time. First Encounter is followed by First Date, First Kiss, First Fight, First Armistice, etc., a familiar sequence that helps the writer build plot.

Story comes to us from survival myth: either the corn grows or it doesn’t. If the corn grows, we grow fat. We celebrate the corn with art. If the corn does not grow, we grow lean, and perhaps mean. When we grow mean, we consider replacing the king. Last year the king was fat and the corn grew. This year the king is ill and consorting with harlots and rock minstrels and so the corn withers and God does not smile on the land. Because we want someone to pay for the withered corn, we consult with the queen who recruits a stranger who is strong and virile—he rides into town on horseback or camelback or behind the wheel of a Jeep Cherokee—who will make the corn grow so that we and our children may be fat this time next year.

As writers, we inherit this story of corn and kings and queens who plot to replace their husbands and strangers riding into town on rusted steeds and children growing fat in the Garden last year and those same children transformed by less corn into sly rats of the Wasteland this year. What we do with this basic story depends on the choices we make about character and setting and action and genre.

The opening scene of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, for example, shows a stranger checking out the palace of the old king. The palace is the Twin Oaks Tavern in backroads California in the Thirties; the king is Nick Papadakis, the Greek proprietor slated for death; the queen in this tale is Cora, Nick’s young wife; the stranger who enters for a First Encounter with the queen is Frank Chambers, a drifter: “Except for the shape, she wasn’t any raving beauty, but she had a sulky look to her….”

This heated First Encounter between young lovers births a plot to replace the old king.

King Replacement

This primal ritual, a young male replacing an old male in the bed of the fertile female, draws power from the ancient ritual of kingship succession. The king grows old; the land is plagued by his wrinkled grayness; the king must therefore die. To engineer the death of the king, the queen chooses a helper, a muscular young stranger. The triangle of king-queen-stranger, a throne-room model for the perfect character triad, creates opportunities for a suspenseful plot. When does the queen decide? How does she select the stranger? How smart is the king? What is the method of murder? What’s the method of corpse disposal? Who has the point of view? How much does the king suspect?

According to Barbara Walker, the ritual of king replacement in the long sweet days of the Matriarchy was based on the sex appeal of the intruder-stranger. “In early Asiatic civilizations,” writes Walker in her Woman’s Encyclopedia, “kingship depended on the choices of women. There was no law of primogeniture….Marriage with the earthly representative of the Goddess, in the form of the queen, was essential to the position of kingship….The goddess-queen’s choice largely depended on the candidate’s sex appeal. If she tired of the king’s lovemaking, he could be deposed or killed, for the queen’s sexual acceptance of him determined the fertility of the land. In many early societies the old king was killed by the new king, usually called a ‘son’ though he was no blood relative.”

King Replacement is one of seven core stories. What happens to the story depends on plot—what happens to the protagonist—and structure—how the writer arranges the parts. In Cain’s Postman, the lovers murder the king; they inherit the kingdom doomed by their act. When she drowns at the climax, the queen is pregnant, verifying the fertility of the muscular stranger, who wraps up the tale in jail.

The same fate of incarceration at the end befalls the virile stranger in Body Heat, a film noir movie starring William Hurt (stranger), Kathleen Turner (queen), and Richard Crenna (king). Body Heat heats up at the First Encounter when the queen spills red juice from a snow cone on her white dress. The stranger follows her home; he breaks a door down; the lovers get physical; in bed, the queen recruits the stranger to murder the king.

The plot twist in Body Heat comes from double king replacement: the stranger who replaces the king is himself replaced. The steam-heat-lovewas a trap, a recruiting ploy. After enlisting the stranger to erase the king, the queen used the insurance money to retire to a desert isle.

King replacement makes good fiction; it makes good films. King replacement is the subtext for Cinderella told from the point of view of the virgin who will produce the child who will be king. King replacement sets up Jay Gatsby (doomed protagonist of The Great Gatsby) to die when he courts Daisy Fay Buchanan, the wife of Tom Buchanan. Gatsby, a stranger from the West, is the king of West Egg. Tom Buchanan, a scion of old money, is the king of East Egg. Boozed up behind the wheel of Gatsby’s yellow car, Daisy kills Myrtle, Tom’s mistress, who lives in a Waste Land of Cinderella-esque ashes. To get rid of Gatsby, Tom rats to Myrtle’s husband, who shoots Gatsby as he floats in his pool at West Egg, dreaming of Daisy. The yellow car is a plot device in a classic story of failed king replacement.

SUMMARY of The Course

One: Foundations.

In Foundations, the writers have three objectives: 1) to discover their core story; 2) to develop the core story with enough drama to entertain audience or reader; and 3) to begin the quest for voice. Writers who complete this first course will exit with three pieces of writing: a plot synopsis in three acts (8-10 pages); a dramatic scene (5-6 pages); and an extended essay that explores the writer’s hopes and fears, dreams and motives and skills. To prepare for the second course, Scene and Plot, writers should work on character, scene, and plot.

Two: Scene and Plot.

In Scene and Plot, the writers generate key scenes to anchor their three-act structure. Act Two, for example, is anchored by two “plot point” scenes: plot point one ends Act One; plot point two ends Act Two. Generating scenes for the core story helps writers find their own voice. Voice is the first predictor of form. In Cain’s opening to Postman, Frank Chambers says: “They threw me off the haytruck about noon.” The story starts inside the mind of the stranger. Writers who start in First Person have chosen fiction (novel, novella, short story), a form that allows the writer to horse around with time: “I had swung on the night before, down at the border, and as soon as I got up there under the canvas, I went to sleep.”

Writers who complete the second course in Story Development will exit with six key scenes (opener, plot point one, midpoint, plot point two, climax, and wrap up); solid plot synopses of Acts One, Two, and Three; a back story that explores the past of the protagonist in some detail; and a list of scenes which, if not quite complete, spans the plot from start to finish. To prepare for the third course, Form, writers should rewrite scenes in sequence (8-10 scenes to complete Act One, for example) while they continue the search for voice.

Three: Form.

In Form, writers try out their voices in fiction (novel, novella, short story), drama (stage play), and film. At this stage of development, the core story has a direction. If a corpse entered the story at plot point one, the writer creates a sleuth and the presence of the sleuth defines the genre as mystery. If the king transforms into a monster at midpoint, the writer alters the setting to make it seethe with evil, defining the genre as horror. In this third course of story development, writers make hard choices for their tales. A character-based story developed with dreams and lush symbols and interior monologues, while intended for film, might become a piece of fiction headed for Kindle-hood. An action story written as a novel with no subplot and very few secondary characters might be perfect for film. A two-character story with brilliant dialogue that never leaves the bedroom would gravitate to the stage, to the house lights and the expectant hush of live theatre. A series of linked short stories heavy on action and dialogue and starring a lead character with charisma and sex appeal might wend its way toward a series for TV.

Writers who complete the third phase of Story Development exit with a skill level that comes not only from writing practice—putting words on the page—but also from an understanding of form: how the words change to fit the form; how the core story is the core story is the core story. Writer A, who entered Story Development hoping to make some quick money with a commercial screenplay, is now deep into a literary novel. Writer B, who entered Story Development writing fat interior monologues and clumsy self-conscious narration, is almost finished with an action script because she learned how to convert narration into dialogue and dialogue into scene.

Models for Writing

From the first day to the last, writers in Story Development will be exposed to the power of the core story and the mutability of form. Writers who try to write a mystery with no corpse will be exposed to models like Cain’s Postman, showing the dramatic power of king replacement through murder. Writers who write character stories stuffed with monologues will be exposed to models like Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea (novella converted into two films where the protagonist talks to the fish) and du Maurier’s Rebecca (the unnamed narrator of the novel is named in the Hitchcock film), showing how narration is transformed into image on the screen.

Other models might include stage plays that became films—Death of a Salesman (Miller); A Streetcar Named Desire (Williams); books that became films like Out of Africa, which began as a book of essays and wound up an epic; films from real life like Searching For Bobby Fischer (king replacement on the cosmic chessboard); genre films like Blade Runner and The Big Sleep that became cult classics. We’ll use Shakespeare and Dickens; Melville and Fitzgerald and Faulkner. We’ll use models from contemporary fiction like Anne Tyler, Doris Lessing, and Cormac McCarthy.

Tips For Instructors
One: Foundations
Two: Scenes and Plot
Three: Form

© Jack Remick & Robert Ray. All rights Reserved.