K.M. WEILAND’S TEMPLATE TO CREATE THE BACKBONE OF A STORY USING THEME (6TH PART).

It’s time for the sixth part of our series on K.M. Weiland’s theme template. So, what do we have so far?

We have a protagonist, who is a selfless and skillful person, trapped inside a town where he and other prisoners have to participate in a series of challenges, either to win or to survive, in order to maintain their families, to earn their food. Failing to do so means they must die, but a participant has the opportunity of choosing a family member to die for them, this will keep them in the game.

The winner of the challenge can opt to become the new warden of this prison town and can even choose to free all of the participants. Our antagonist is the warden of the town, a former prisoner who feels the need to punish criminals and who’s comfortable with his power position.

In our last session, we established the second major element of the first act, our story’s small introductory truth. Which it’s comprised of the following elements:

  • An unsolvable puzzle challenge.
  • The almost certain possibility of dying for most of the participants.
  • The need for this to happen for the warden’s program to have a great start.
  • The protagonist skillfully solving this puzzle and the saving of many.

We’ll also retrieve the first major element of the first act, the manifestation of the big lie:

  • Hope makes people suffer and waste their lives.

Which in our story is comprised of our setting, the prison town, and our antagonist, the warden, who offers false hope in the shape of a sick challenge.

Now, we need to design our unsolvable puzzle and the grand scheme of the prison challenge. But, to do so, we first need to understand our protagonist, because if he’s going to be able to skillfully solve this challenge, we need to give him the tools and abilities to do so.

So the question is… Who is our protagonist?

As always, let’s start our development by bringing forth all of the information we have available. We know that he believes that hope can make you suffer and get you killed and that this belief comes from witnessing the death of his mother and sisters. We also know that his wound is fear of change, with the following traits:

  • Chooses to not get involved emotionally.
  • Doesn’t have an opinion on things that can cause backlash.
  • Prefers enclosure.
  • Doesn’t trust others.

Lastly, we know he’s skillful and selfless and that these character traits are his primary weapons.

Now, let’s think for a moment. What type of person, who by the way is an orphan, develops the ability to show talent or adeptness (which is the definition of skillful)? I want to detain myself in the word adeptness, which means to gain an ability without difficulty. This means that our protagonist can learn and execute new abilities, perform learned abilities and overall learn at a staggering speed.

If we consider the fact that he’s an orphan, this means he has had to be competing with other kids from an early age. So, let’s say that after losing his family in a war situation (you can check that part here) he had to survive on his own, effectively escaping from enemy lines. Not only that, but being an orphan, our protagonist had to enlist in the army and return to fight the war. Imagine our hero coming back home, to the place where enemy soldiers killed his family, just because they had the hope of their father to come back. This has to be an iconic image in his mind.

So, what happens after the war? We have an orphan killing machine, a person who has learned to gain new abilities fast to survive. Let’s say that, because of exemplary achievements during the war, he was awarded higher education. He chooses a medical career as he feels guilty for killing so many people. Yet, something strange happens, he gains fame for being “coldhearted” as he approaches cases with a clear mindset, “if a person is beyond saving it’s better not to attempt a procedure“. You see what is happening? here we have the manifestation of the lie the character believes, that in hope there’s only pain and death.

Now, let’s toss our protagonist into the story.

How? Let’s choose our inciting incident!

How about this?

Our doctor protagonist, who has a coldhearted reputation, gets accused of letting a patient die in the operating room. Why? because this patient is actually one of the enemy soldiers that attacked his family in the past. Did he do it? Did our protagonist let his enemy die to take revenge for the death of his loved ones? We don’t know yet, what we do know is that a court finds him guilty and sentences him to prison. Yet, he doesn’t go to a regular prison, he goes into this prison town. This means that for the small introduction of the truth to be established successfully, we have to design the draft of participants blindly. What do I mean by this? the persons in charge of choosing which prisoners go to prison town can’t have the information about our protagonist being a former soldier. They only know that he’s a coldhearted doctor who left a patient to die.

And so, we already have plenty to design our unsolvable puzzle and the setting of the challenge, right?

We know that, in order to defeat the first stage we need:

  • To learn a new ability really fast.
  • Need to use some high military skills.
  • Need to be coldhearted.

We also know that our protagonist’s first objective is not only to win this challenge but also to save as many people as possible.

Military people usually learn abilities by procedure, this means that they mentally break a problem into small pieces and go about them in an orderly fashion. So maybe the challenge involves a series of steps. Taking into consideration that the overall objective of the story is to escape prison, let’s say the challenge objective is also to escape, this gives us the setting, this challenge is a maze.

So, what’s a maze?

There are two definitions we can use. A “network of paths” and  “dazed and confused“, in both cases the idea being “to find the way out“. Now, this is the interesting part, because of the word “path” which stands for “a course of action or way of achieving a specified result“.

So, the first challenge is…

A network of courses of actions (or ways to achieve a specific result), but they’re placed in a way that’s confusing and dazing and can only be surpassed using high military skills and/or gaining a new ability really fast, while being coldhearted.

But the thing is that being coldhearted to face the challenge ultimately means saving many. Do you feel some reminiscence now? Remember that our protagonist was accused of letting a patient die because of his coldhearted persona. What better way to test this idea in our first act than by making him face the same ordeal in our challenge! Not only to make him give us a clue as to what really happened in that operating room but also to state our main theme, that “hope gives people a reason to live” because he will become that hope by saving others.

Okay, let’s design our challenge!

As we already know, defeating the challenge gives the protagonist the possibility to save others. This means that solving the maze gives others the ability to do so themselves by understanding what needs to be done. We also know that you can die trying to solve the puzzle, but you can hope to survive because there’s a fixed time limit and that the objective of the challenge is to kill as many participants as possible to make the first round a successful one.

One key element that can help us now is the “being coldhearted”, which means that one has to pass on the initial impulsive feeling of doing something and wait, analyze and reflect, in doing so you find patterns that weren’t initially available.

These patterns reveal a course of action, meaning you find the rules, which are simple but are hidden.
So, there’s initial misleading information that makes people act without thinking, maybe some time limit.
Let’s say that there’s an overall 2 minutes count to finish the maze and each participant has a collar with a 10 points meter that activates once you’re inside the maze. The initial misleading information is that, if the prisoner can’t finish the maze in the 2 minutes, the person waiting on the other side of the maze, a loved one, will die.

There’s an urgency to act, but also that doing so is a mistake.

The 10 points collars are activated once you enter the maze, so the protagonist hesitates before entering, he takes the time to analyze the situation while others rush inside, he’s trying to find the hidden patterns. But his loved one on the other side of the maze thinks he’s going to stay there, him being cold-hearted and all, right? Let’s amp this idea further. If the prisoner abstains from entering the maze they can live, and the person on the other side dies.

Also, as long as you keep having points you can move, if points reach 0, the collar in your neck explodes and you die. Initially, no one understands what makes you lose or gain points, yet after a while, those who were looking instead of rushing see some patterns emerging.

This means that a good decision would be to find a way of keeping points while moving forward.
So, there’s a pattern to be found on the floor.

Stepping on certain terrain takes points from you while stepping on another type of terrain gives you points.

Now, there’s only one particular combination of steps that ensures getting to the end of the maze. But it’s so hard to accomplish that, in the event of someone doing so, every participant gets saved.

As such, all possible results are as follows:

• If the prisoner stays out of the maze, the familiar at the other end dies.
• If the prisoner runs out of points inside the maze, they die.
• If the prisoner reaches 1 point and stays put, he survives but the familiar dies.
• If a person gets to the other side before time finishes, all participants are saved. (This has never happened).

And so, as the other participants desperately rush inside the maze, activating the collars and impulsively stepping on the different terrains without understanding what’s making them lose points. While collars explode and people’s heads are severed, our protagonist stays put, he only watches in silence, focused on emerging patterns, learning.

Things are such that he can even listen to the voice of his loved one on the other side, as this person believes our protagonist has left them to die and lashes out by giving a hurtful speech against him. Yet he’s not deterred by this, with each passing moment things become clearer, and at the limit between the remaining time on the clock and the amount of time needed to solve the maze, he obtains the correct pattern of steps and rushes into the maze. As other participants, now without more than 1 point left get stuck before getting to the end and having to listen to the cries of their loved ones, he goes forward against time and odds, managing to get to the endpoint just as the clock reaches zero.

Effectively winning the first challenge and saving all the remaining participants.

Okay! man that was some difficult work! but it was worth it because now we understand the mechanics of our challenge in this prison town and we know a lot more about our protagonist. Next time we’re moving forward with the story and with K.M. Weiland’s theme template. This time, we’ll discover how the antagonistic forces respond to this incredible act of skills and guts, as our protagonist immerses himself fully into our plot.

Until that time comes… Good luck in writing!

K.M WEILAND’S TEMPLATE TO CREATE THE BACKBONE OF A STORY USING THEME (3rD PART).

And so… here we are. And don’t be surprise by the ominous feeling we’re getting here, cause this time we’re diving deep into character development, probably the most painful and self reflecting part of the writing journey. Yes, it’s time to tackle the personal aspect of our story, about our protagonist and by consequence, of any other character in our roster.

It is time to talk about the Ghost/Wound.

But before going to crazytown, let’s make a quick recap of all the progress we’ve made so far, shall we?

First, we have our:

Big truth and character-specific truth:

If generally “Hope gives people a reason to live”, then specifically, “Hope can help you survive and be free from injustice”.

And…

Big lie and character-specific lie:

If generally “Hope makes people suffer and waste their lives”, then specifically, “Hope can make you suffer and get you killed”.

Then, we chose escape from prison as the thing the character wants, and, “to understand that his actions not only reignited hope inside him but also gave hope to others, shifting the balance of injustice inside prison” as the thing the character needs.

Now, to understand how a proper Ghost/Wound works, and by that I mean it works for our story, we have to think for a moment about the thing the character needs. If we have a character that has to learn that “his actions can reignite hope for him and also give hope to others” we’re also talking about a character that has lost hope in the first place, but also, a character that can inspire others.

Taking these two ideas we can say that our character has something special about him, something that can inspire others, but it seems that they can’t see this at the start point, given that they have to learn this truth as part of the story objective. So, let’s ask ourselves, which type of character has no hope because they can’t see who they really are. Maybe this character can accomplish amazing feats but fails to see value in himself, so much that they need to be put in a catastrophic situation to learn their true value.

Here’s where the Ghost makes its appearance.

Let’s define this value first, right? so we can talk about the same thing moving forward.

The Ghost is a motivating event in your character’s past that represents the moment and reason the lie first took root in their life. The lie you say?

Hope can make you suffer and get you killed.

What we’re saying here is that something happened in the character’s past that makes them believe that experiencing hope is a dangerous thing, so much that in having hope they think suffering and death are inevitable.

Let’s say that, as a young boy, the protagonist lived in a war zone, where his mother takes the hopeful decision to stay at home, while all the other families fled because she had the hope that her husband would return to them as promised and couldn’t leave him behind, because of hope. And so, father never arrived, by enemy soldiers did, effectively killing her and the protagonist’s sisters.

From this point forward, our protagonist holds the belief that experiencing hope will inevitably lead to suffering and to the possibility of being killed.

Now, this Ghost from our protagonist’s past has produced a Wound on him, and wounds need to heal. Before you go on asking how can a wound heal, and I tell you right now, the answer is right there in the proposition, let’s talk a bit about it.

So, What’s this Wound thing exactly?

A wound is an aftermath of experiencing the ghost, it is often expressed through some fear that the character tries to avoid at all cost. Because of the traumatic nature of this experience, the wound acts like a defensive mechanism that prevents the character from being hurt again, but it also prevents them to overcome the experience and have a better life, beyond fear.

It is expressed as a personality trait (or a group of them) that protects the character from being harmed and maintains some control over their experience. At the same time, the wound makes the character see reality from a distorted point of view that prevents them from seeing the truth.

In our protagonist’s case, the wound of having lost their family over hope, their belief that experiencing it can lead to suffering and death, can be summarized in “fear of change“. What do I mean by that, I mean that the character will prefer to accept things as they come, building a comfortable and protected life, free of risk or gamble, to actually avoid the need of experiencing hope for better things. As long as the character stays “imprisoned” in his own lack of hope, they will at least not experience any suffering and will avoid death.

Now, what type of character traits can encompass a character that’s experiencing fear of change?

  • They will choose to not get involved emotionally.
  • They will not have an opinion on things that can cause backlash.
  • They will prefer enclosure.
  • They will not be as open as to trust others.
  • Etc.

Are you getting the idea? Okay, as you can see, a ghost from the past produces a wound that the character needs to overcome to have a proper life. Until then, they will keep suffering on their own accord, which summing up an external conflict and goals to achieve can make up a real recipe for disaster.

But, do not despair yet, because not everything is lost for our protagonist. Remember that at one point we talked about something special about the character? because the truth is that our protagonist can inspire others, to give them hope at the same time they discover it for themselves.

Now we’re talking about the Basic Action, which is also thought about as the “character’s weapon“, an ability or set of personality traits that have a positive impact and that can help them achieve their goal towards the truth.

And you know what’s the most incredible part of this Basic Action/Weapon?

Most of the time, the protagonist has it but, because of the Ghost/Wound/Lie situation, they can’t see it in themselves. That’s why they need to go through the ordeal that the story proposes, to understand their true value, to change the perception they have about themselves.

In our case, what could be the Basic Action of our protagonist?

Maybe this lack of hope leads them to be selfless, maybe even brave or painfully honest. Maybe lack of hope gives them a clear perspective on human affairs, the information they could use to achieve things. Maybe a life without hope has to lead them to be skillful not to rely on others.

To keep our story going, let’s say our protagonist is a skillful and selfless person, who has fear of change and so prefers not to attempt to change the destiny of things.

And that’s it for today! Next time we’ll use all of the information we have so far to start building our plot.

Until then, good luck in writing!

K.M Weiland’s TEMPLATE to create the backbone of a story using THEME (2nd part).

Okay, so last week we managed to find our story foundation using the theme template, remember? And making the effort to keep these ideas in mind while moving forward will make a ton of difference in the end product, I promise you that.

So, let’s continue!

But first, let’s make a quick recap of our previous endeavor, shall we? What we have so far is:

Big truth and character-specific truth:

If generally “Hope gives people a reason to live”, then specifically, “Hope can help you survive and be free from injustice”.

And…

Big lie and character-specific lie:

If generally “Hope makes people suffer and waste their lives”, then specifically, “Hope can make you suffer and get you killed”.

Let’s think about our statements for a moment. Because, as we said before, contained in these sentences lies the conflict in our story. What we have here is a struggle between two POVs about the same idea, HOPE.

Does hope give you a reason to live or is it just an illusion that leads you to waste your life and suffer? This is the core movement of our narrative, solving this question is the goal of the protagonist’s journey and the reason for his change.

So, if the answer to this question is the goal for the character, that’s another way of talking about their want, which is our next step in K.M. Weiland’s theme template.

The thing the character wants

This one is a tricky fellow.

Theory indicates that the want is a representation of a larger, more abstract desire (e.g., to be loved), but it manifests as a concrete plot-based goal for the protagonist.

Remember our previous question?

Does hope give you a reason to live or is it just an illusion that leads you to waste your life and suffer?

Now think about it, what kind of person would be questioning themselves about these things? Let’s say our protagonist wants to find meaning in their lives.

Now, to find meaning in life is an abstract, larger desire. Let’s try to bring it down into a concrete plot-based goal. To do this, we need to at least know a bit about the setting of our story, because, at this point, we’re talking about actual plot elements.

Now, where do we find more specific information about our story if we haven’t written anything plot-related yet? As you remember, we do have a piece of specific information, our character-specific truth, and lie.

  • Hope can help you survive and be free from injustice.
  • Hope can make you suffer and get you killed.

Some elements are already talking to us about the setting of the story, words like injustice or killed talk to us about the genre, about tone, right?

If our abstract, larger desire is to find meaning in life, using John Truby’s levels of desire lines we can land on our plot-based goal:

Desire line                                       Plot-based goal

Survive                                              Escape from prison.

Take revenge                                   Kill who wrongfully accuses you

Achieve something                        Achieving changes in the legal system

Explore a world                               Travel against all odds

Catch a criminal                              Stop the person destroying your life

Find the truth                                  Clear your name from false accusation

Gain love                                          Find love against the wishes of society

Bring justice and freedom           Liberate people from injustice

Save the republic                            Over-throne a corrupt government

Save the world                                Defeat an alien invasion.

Okay, for the sake of simplicity let’s choose “escape from prison” as the thing the character wants, so we can move into our next stop in K.M. Weiland’s Theme Template!

The thing the character needs

As the character goes through the plot and execute actions to conquer obstacles in their way to the goal, they will also learn some truth about themselves. This is what’s often thought of as the thing the character needs, which is to understand/change/overcome some aspect of their own lives.

Ultimately, we’re talking about an understanding of the truth (specific to the character) but it’s also usually represented by a more concrete and specific outer-world objective.

In our story, the thing the character wants is to escape prison, as they do so (or try to, anyway) they will inevitably face some harsh realities about themselves. What if they have to leave someone behind to achieve a certain goal? What if they have to betray an ally? In their drive to gain the thing they want, the protagonist will come to understand the limits of their morals, how far are they willing to go. In doing so they will eventually come to terms with some deep truth about themselves that will change them and their lives completely.

So, how can you choose the thing the character needs? In a way you already have it, yet it’s expressed as an outer idea. Yes, it’s the character-specific truth.

  • Hope can help you survive and be free from injustice.

But, how can we express this idea in a way that speaks about our character and give us a sense of the plot?

Let’s recollect the information we already have.

What do we know about the character?

Well, we know he’s in a positive arc (refer to the 1st part of this topic if you didn’t read it here), which means they will start the story in a negative position, given by the character-based lie:

  • Hope can make you suffer and get you killed.

Okay, so what do we know about the plot? As we stated before, the setting of it is a prison, and the thing the character wants is to escape from it, right?

So, what truth can a person, who deep inside believes hope can get you killed, need to escape from a prison, from which they were unjustly imprisoned?

Taking into consideration that our theme revolves around hope, and that the character-specific truth is “hope can help you survive and be free from injustice”, we could say that the thing the character needs is:

  • To understand that his actions not only reignited hope inside him but also gave hope to others, shifting the balance of injustice inside prison.

Thus, making their last movement towards escaping, inevitable.

As we will see in our next session, the thing the character needs still needs some fine-tuning and we will use the Ghost/Wound to do so. Until then… GOOD LUCK IN WRITING!!

K.M Weiland’s TEMPLATE to create the backbone of a story using THEME (1st part).

I’ve been studying story structure for some time now and I have to say, this is predominantly in screenwriting theory, that almost all the time, the learning process focuses on two aspects, the character’s main goal, and the plot. Current writing methods and available courses tend to revolve around the protagonist and their journey. Seems obvious, right? But, taking this route don’t be surprised if you end up with a series of disjointed events happening to someone for some reason.

Why is this? You may ask, well, I would say it’s mostly because there’s a misunderstanding about what the theme is and what is its impact on the story as a whole. Put it simply, the theme is everything, the characters, the events happening, even the decoration in the walls is a reflection of a core idea, repeating itself infinitely and giving the spectator a sense of “patterns” appearing again and again, talking to them about an idea the author is trying to convey.

Now ask yourself, but be truly honest about it… How can your story resonate with the audience if you don’t know what you’re talking about? Because you may come up with a plot that “makes sense”, especially if you’re reflecting on movies you’ve already seen. Maybe you’re telling yourself “I feel this is talking about something”, you may even feel there’s a pattern here and there, that’s great! But are you really in command of what’s going on? Are you discovering something intuitively or are you designing something like a creator?

Is there any way to be sure?

Of course! That’s the whole reason we’re talking about this, and K.M Weiland is here to give us a hand. In her book “Writing your Story’s Theme” she presents to us a template which we can use to figure out our story, but not using plot beats or prefixed structures, but by choosing our theme and using it to figure out these patterns, because these patterns are glimpses of the truth, we, as authors, want to convey.

So, let’s dive into this template as we also try to come up with a story to support the idea that it works!

The template goes like this…

Story’s Big Truth (main theme)

Your core theme idea is expressed as a premise. The universal principle of the story.

Example: Hope gives people a reason to live.

As you can see, it works best when you establish it as an intentional statement.

Story’s Big Lie

The flip side of the coin is the opposition to the big truth.

Example: Hope makes people suffer and waste their lives.

Now, as you can see, by choosing these two general aspects of your story, a theme expressed as a Big Truth and a counter theme expressed as a Big Lie, what you just did is define the conflict in the story.

This is important because, from this point forward, every time you’re thinking about conflict…

  • Characters you choose and their involvement in the story.
  • Character dialogues.
  • Plot beats.
  • Setting
  • Etc.

You have to keep in mind the decision you initially did with the Big Truth and the Big Lie. If, when adding something to the story, you’re not talking about these core elements, you’re drifting and wasting time and space.

Okay! Are you getting the idea? I hope you do. Let’s bring our initial statements back for a moment:

  • Big Truth: Hope gives people a reason to live.
  • Big Lie: Hope makes people suffer and waste their lives.

The template continues with…

Character’s specific Truth:

It’s any of the characters you choose a specific version of the Big Truth, and it’s specific regarding your story.

Example:

Main character’s truth:

“Hope can help you survive and be free from injustice”.

Character’s specific Lie:

This is one of the most important elements of your story, period. It is also known as “the lie the character believes”. It branches from the character’s ghost/wound and it’s the seed of their want, which is the pillar of the plot and the antagonist and the setting. So yeah, this may be the most important information you’ll use to build your story, so treat it as such!

But hey… ease up a bit on the pressure, is not like you’re putting all your life at risk by choosing, right?

Remember the Big Lie?

“Hope makes people suffer and waste their lives.”

Normally, the relation between the protagonist and the antagonistic forces depends on the type of story you want to convey. From a character POV there are only three types of stories:

  • Positive Arc Story
  • Negative Arc Story
  • Flat Arc Story

We’re not going to talk about them at this point, let’s just state that according to our main character’s specific truth, we can infer that we’re dealing with a positive arc.

So, if we’re dealing with a positive arc, we have to start our journey from the polar opposite, from a negative place.

Now, what could be the negative of…

“Hope can help you survive and be free from injustice”.

                                                                          Maybe…

                                                                                         “Hope can make you suffer and get you killed”.

Look closely…

The relation between the Big Truth and the Character’s specific truth is stated like this:

If generally “Hope gives people a reason to live”, then specifically, “Hope can help you survive and be free from injustice”.

Now, let’s do the same with the counterpart.

If generally “Hope makes people suffer and waste their lives”, then specifically, “Hope can make you suffer and get you killed”.

Great! We’ve already designed the core idea behind our conflict, the engine upon which all of our decisions and plot making will be based.

Next time we’ll continue our exercise, using Weiland’s template, to go deeper into our story, building upon this strong foundation and moving into more specific details that slowly but surely will help us deliver a powerful story, keeping our theme always in the back of our head as guidance in this treacherous journey of fiction writing.

A QUICK REVIEW of the 4 most important CHARACTERS in a STORY.

Thinking about the theme of a story, there are many ways to go about finding and choosing the characters that will traverse the plot in order to shape our premise through their respective arcs. So, what better than to review the 4 most important characters you’ll ever use in storytelling to wrap up this whole character/theme chapter.

Let’s do it!

But, who are these important characters we’re talking about?

  • The protagonist
  • The antagonist
  • The sidekick
  • The love interest

Now, let’s quickly review them one by one, first we’ll go about those who we’ve extendedly discussed in previous entries, so we’ll just briefly discuss them.

  1. THE PROTAGONIST: represents the main thematic principle, meaning that their emotional journey, which is also the main engine of the story, culminates in the realization of the thematic truth.
  2. THE ANTAGONIST: Represents the flipside of the protagonist’s thematic principle.

Okay, so we already knew a lot about those two, but what about the others?

Let’s see!

3. THE SIDEKICK: Proves the value of the protagonist’s thematic principle, mostly through reflection, which is important because of its differences from the protagonist and makes a strong argument as to why the protagonist has to fight and win.

4. THE LOVE INTEREST: Functions as an impact character, someone who guides the protagonist. They do this by symbolically rewarding (drawing nearer to) or punishing (drawing away from) the protagonist, depending on how aligned the protagonist is with the story’s truth.

That’s it!

And just to give a proper ending to this topic, let’s remember that characters often work not towards a real solution but to a perceived solution. Also, characters frequently grapple with a problem that is ultimately recognized as only a symptom of the real problem.