Building a Storytelling Toolbox

Storytelling theory is not new. Aristotle's Poetics laid out some of the core rules of drama in 335BC that we still follow today. And yet, the state of story theory is muddled, at best. Take a look at this chart from John Yorke's Into The Woods:

Into The Woods Paradigms.png

This is just a small sampling of various attempts at structure by different story theorists. This great variety (and ostensible disagreement about the best form of structure) in story theories also leads to another side effect: ambiguous nomenclature. It's easy for storytellers to get lost in semantic arguments because we can't seem to disagree on the basic definition of our terms. All terms are relative to one's favorite paradigm. For instance, is it the inciting incident, impetus, catalyst, trigger, or call to action? Is it a desire, want, need, drive, intention, or motivation? Is it a traumatic event, backstory, ghost, or rubber ducky moment? Depends on who you ask. It's no wonder that we have a hard time communicating story theories and structural ideas--we're all talking different languages! There's a glaring lack of standardization.

So how did we get here? Eventually the more analytical of the storytellers have spent enough time thinking about story that they usually unwittingly (or intentionally) develop a paradigm and perspective of their own. Sometimes the paradigm is built on others and might even use the nomenclature of others. But the truth is that when you write books, you're most often looking to sell books. And if you want to write and package a "new" storytelling theory, you'll need "new" terms for "new" insights. There exists, then, a natural incentive to creative "new" paradigms that generally don't admit to standing on the shoulders of giants.

Larry Wilson sums it up nicely, "There is a huge business--maybe an overly-huge business--in teaching screenplay structure. A 3-act structure, a 5-act structure… I know a fair share of 'screenwriting gurus' who are at each other's throats all the time over which structure is the structure. I'm not saying there's not a structure (I would be in big trouble if I said there wasn't a structure) and that a story didn't have a beginning, a middle, and an end, but this reliance--this absolute need--to follow any structure map that's out there -- and if you don't have a turning point on page 30 you haven't done it right, or if you're on step 5 of 22 steps and you're on the wrong step you haven't done it right, or any of this stuff -- it's not true. This structure business: it's a business. … And you need a diagram to teach structure and you sell a diagram. And it's very hard to say, 'I have the best diagram' unless you have a diagram. I mean, you need a diagram to sell a diagram. I told you earlier about my diagram--it ends on page 60 with someone hanging themselves (it's an emotional diagram). … The real point of it is that: have characters who you believe in, and you believe that you can write them, and they are in some sense writing you--and they are in some sense coming from a place of truth for you-- put them in the tightest, most impossible situation you can imagine and get them out of it. … And let the story flow. … Those structure diagrams can assist you or they can be a cage. They can be an absolute cage and they can trap you."

"Discovering" a new paradigm is a great way to establish authority, especially if you intend on becoming a script doctor. And if you can claim that it's 100% original, all the better.

Now here's the good news: it doesn't have to be this way. We at Kiingo won't be trying to come up with a fundamentally new theory of story, because I believe the core of what needs to be understood has already been "discovered". The job now is primarily to translate nomenclature, identify duplicate puzzle pieces, align similar theories, identify any holes, and piece together the storytelling jigsaw. The majority of the challenge comes in the form of organization, which is no small task on its own. There’s a quote that’s always resonated with me: “95% of writing is problem solving.” If we can become better creative problem solvers, we can become better writers.

I like to take the perspective that there's truth in each framework and paradigm. As a general rule of thumb, paradigm authors are acting in good faith and actually do believe what they preach. They've spent a good amount of time thinking about their theories. Each paradigm has at the very least a kernel of truth to be extracted. Michael Hauge likes to say that we're all looking at the same thing through different windows. And that's the closest description of the truth. These paradigms are all trying to describe the same reality. Any good storytelling theory should be able to reconcile all realities. An ideal storytelling toolbox will not ignore what came before, but rather organize it and build on it.

In general, different perspectives (i.e. paradigms) emphasize different patterns. John Truby, for instance, emphasizes the moral argument and revelations. John Yorke emphasizes structure and change.

To believe that any one storytelling theory currently exists that explains and prescribes all of the elements necessary to write a great story is absurd. There is currently no paradigm that is the "right" paradigm, allowing you to ignore all others. An ideal storytelling toolbox will not propose any one perspective or paradigm as the only paradigm you need to fully understand and write story.

The type of person who takes the time to sit down and think about what makes a great story is generally analytical by definition. This type of person usually falls under the "planner" label rather than the "pantser" label. They're generally architects, not gardeners. As Corey Mandell would say, they're generally "conceptual" rather than "intuitive." There's absolutely nothing wrong with being a conceptual writer but the side effect of the fact that theorists themselves are generally analytical is that storytelling theories tend to favor conceptual ideas and techniques over their intuitive counterparts. Any prescriptive tools are analytical and procedural. That is to say, storytelling paradigms are generally more helpful to conceptual writers than to intuitive writers. An ideal storytelling toolbox will provide tools and techniques for both the conceptual and intuitive writer.

Theorists across creative art forms tend to preface their work with, "I'm not telling you how to create. This is just a description of why certain art of the past has worked." Whether it's because the theorist actually believes they can't begin to offer a prescriptive model, or whether it's because they fear the backlash of those who rebel against "rules", story theories are generally descriptive rather than prescriptive. That is to say, their stated mission is usually to describe what makes a story work, not how to write a story. These models are descriptive, not prescriptive. But what is our goal in creating story theories and tools? What use is describing the mechanics of stories if you disavow explicit attempts to apply the mechanics going forward? An ideal storytelling toolbox will not only provide descriptive models, but also prescriptive tools to put pen to paper. Theories exist to serve the writer, not the only way around.

Part of the hesitation behind offering a prescriptive model may be the fear of implying that any one tool, paradigm, or theory covers the entirety of story. Creative folks in general seem to have some sort of notion that the introduction of a tool equates to advocating the tool's use in all stories and situations ("No formula! No rules! No structure! No guidelines!") We'll be explicit about it: No single tool is complete. No single tool is exhaustive. No single tool can be effective in trying to prescribe a one-size-fits-all solution for all stories (I'm looking at you, Hero's Journey--don't @ me). Sure, you can shoehorn a tool into any situation, but it's to the detriment of the writing, the writer, and the tool. Each tool has a specific purpose. The inability to recognize this fact results in man-with-a-hammer syndrome. Each tool is effective in some situations more than in others. Part of mastering a set of tools is mastering the ability to choose the right tool in the right moment. An ideal storytelling toolbox will provide different tools for different situations and not claim that any one tool fits all scenarios.

The ideal set of story theories and tools is far more expansive than paradigms thus far have tackled. The skills necessary to write a great story extend beyond simply knowing structure, character arcs, suspense, and conflict. In fact, they extend beyond psychology and language skills. A toolbox designed to help the writer from start to finish must delve into the realms of problem solving, morality, philosophy, rational thinking, objectivity, and more. Writing is about bringing worlds to life and the skillset to do so is expansive. An ideal storytelling toolbox will cover a broad range of subjects and skillsets.

As Pixar says, "Tools, not rules". That's the basis of our philosophy going forward. We're creating a story toolbox for writers. A toolbox containing not just descriptive models, but also prescriptive models. A toolbox aimed not just at the conceptual writer, but also at the intuitive writer. A toolbox that doesn't ignore other paradigms but rather acknowledges, reconciles, and builds on them. A toolbox that fundamentally recognizes and encourages the boundaries and usefulness of some tools over others, depending on the situation. A toolbox that extends beyond story structure, language skills, and psychology, into other disciplines that can assist the writing process.

So what would such a toolbox look like? We can break down the contents of the toolbox into three main categories: mental models, conceptual tools and functions, and intuitive tools. A mental model is, quite simply, a model of how something works. That clearly puts mental model tools squarely in the "descriptive" bucket of tools (rather than prescriptive). Storytelling mental models can be used to recognize and apply patterns across various scenarios, leading to prescriptive insights. They help us visualize and conceptualize in order to get different perspectives.

Conceptual story tools and functions are our problem solving tools. Given input constraints, they give us output. They're prescriptive/generative tools and cater primarily to the analytical, conceptual writer. And finally, our intuitive story tools are for the intuitive writers among us. These tools help incite and evoke emotional states of mind. They're best for subconscious processes and suppressing that voice in our heads that knocks down all of our ideas before we've had a chance to fully explore them. These intuitive tools are great for exploration, discovery, and general wandering which can be refined at a later time, if necessary.

Of course, no good storytelling toolbox will ever be complete. There's always a new perspective to be gleaned, a better tool for a sticky situation, and a better understanding of application. For this reason, our story toolbox must be useful before it's perfect. It must be actionable before it's complete. It must help us put pen to paper in a way that goes beyond simply increasing our understanding of story.

In summary, we can say our storytelling toolbox will aim to acknowledge the following:

  1. No universal story theory currently exists that overrides or precludes all others.

  2. Existing storytelling paradigms should not be ignored but rather used as a foundation.

  3. Existing storytelling paradigms must be reconciled (to the extent that they are true).

  4. Tools must be provided for both the conceptual and intuitive writer.

  5. A toolbox should consist not only of descriptive models, but also of prescriptive models.

  6. Different tools must be provided for different scenarios. There is no one-size-fits-all solution.

  7. To learn a tool is to not only learn how to use it, but also to learn when to use it.

  8. A toolbox must cover a broad range of subjects and skillsets.

  9. A story toolbox must be useful before it's perfect (or complete).

  10. A story toolbox must offer actionable tools to put pen to paper.

This is where we stand. There's a lot of work to do going forward, but we don’t have far to go before we can get value from our storytelling toolbox. Let's get writing!