beyond the Nuts and Bolts of Creative writing
empowering artists with the knowledge of world mythology and the Anthropology of storytelling
This page is for comments and discussions useful to writers and creative artists. Feel free to ask questions and send your feedback.
New! Read how to effectively employ popular genres and mythic beings from the global folklore in your creative projects in Lily's essays "Genres" and "Mythology" in The Routledge Companion to Imaginary Worlds (2017). Access these and other articles on fictional world-building on the pages ABOUT and CHRONOS & TOPOS of this site. Access her essay "The Hero's Journey" - full text - as part of the Companion's free sample on amazon.com.
Lily Alexander, Ph.D. is a story development and adaptation (book to screen) editor. She has been mentoring writers and filmmakers since 2000. Her degrees include drama, film, anthropology of storytelling, and comparative cultural studies. She wrote for the media, and authored a book set Fictional Worlds (2013), also published and forthcoming in an interactive format on iTunes. Lily recently completed a series of four essays on fictional world-building (Routledge, 2017), and on writing for interactive narratives and the genres, including adventure, fantasy, drama, mystery, and comedy.
Dr. Alexander has taught at New York University and City University of New York, where she supervised research papers and screenplay development of graduate and undergraduate students. Among the courses she taught relevant to the writing craft are: world literature, film history, authorship (prominent writers and directors), science fiction, screenwriting, and comparative mythology. Lily explores and teaches a system of poetic tools and algorithms, or the best practices, which empower storytellers across cultures, eras and the media. These helpful formulas, flexible and adjustable, can be used as the blueprints or catalysts for emerging authors and media artists.
To get in touch, please use contact form on this site or email:
contact (at) storytellingonscreen.com
Bookshelf: enjoyable recent finds
Fiction: Sarah Winman. A Year of Marvellous Ways. Tinder Press, 2015.
Nonfiction: Mark Goulston. Just Listen. AMACOM, 2015.
Looking forward to reading these authors' other books!
On the writing craft: from the Reviews of Fictional Worlds
"Novel... enlightening.. reads like a fascinating novel... Highly recommended."
Grady Harp, Film Producer, Literary Aficionado
"It is beautiful and most ambitious work. FICTIONAL WORLDS is especially suitable for screenwriting students... A formidable achievement."
Professor Stephen Mamber, Chair, Cinema and Media Studies, University of California, Los Angeles
"Groundbreaking... Compelling... A page turner. Wonderfully accessible! One of the most impressive recent books... [it] also succeeds in providing helpful practical suggestions for developing and improving your own visual narratives."
Andrew Horton, Professor, University of Oklahoma, author of Screenwriting for the Global Market
Film & History, Issue 46.1, Summer 2016
"Richly detailed, generous-spirited and inspiring book... filled with many intriguing ideas... Profoundly useful... Alexander draws on an astonishing range of authors (including Homer, Euripides, Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Joyce), directors (from Eisenstein, Vertov, Kurosawa, and Hitchcock to Lumet, Scorcese, Tarkovsky, Sokurov, and the Coen Brothers)."
Ellen Berry, author of Transcultural Experiments, The Russian Review, Issue 75, April 2016
"Alexander’s exploration sheds decisive light on the foundations, characteristics, and possibilities of fictional worlds... Fictional Worlds can function as a how-to book for aspiring writers, filmmakers, or designers of video games. For example, it offers ten rules, ten “do’s and don’ts,” for creating an effective Journey (pp. 118–120), it underlines the importance of the “Rule of the Three C’s – Choice, Change and Consequences” for the art of dramatic storytelling (p. 164), and it insists on the essential steps that a successful dramatic arc must include (p. 173); it also “proposes ten transformative principles used by skillful storytellers for elevating their ordinary heroes to the status of the extraordinary” (p. 316), including the use of comic inversions, the featuring of unlikely bonds... and it lists twenty narrative strategies and story types that crucially contribute to the symbolic construction of community so important for successful storytelling (pp. 353–355). Particularly interesting passages cover such topics as the “Munchausen Effect,” whereby protagonists pull themselves by their own bootstraps and overcome obstacles without any outside help (pp. 320–322); the “Reverse Pathos” technique, whereby protagonists go through one ordeal after another, thus arousing our compassion (pp. 326–327); the “Second Hero’s Journey,” which involves the midlife adventures of mature protagonists, their renewed search for knowledge, their reinitiation (pp. 125–127); or the murder mystery as “a tragedy in reverse” (p. 259), since the investigation starts after the tragedy has occurred."
Gerald Prince, Professor, University of Pennsylvania, author of Narratology
Book Review "Exploring Stories," in Semiotica, Issue 210, May 2016
Designed to educate and inspire, Fictional Worlds offers writers the distilled 20 most powerful story formulas of world narrative traditions, which any author can use and fuse with his original story ideas. The book explores the role of storytelling in our survival as a species; the roots and the potentials of the genres; the amplified impact of the symbolic narrative (wise parables, as great stories always are); a spectrum of effective character types and functions; and numerous tips and techniques, intended to enrich one's current and future creative projects. Learn more about the book or browse Table of Contents for details.
Fictional Worlds is meant to empower all writers: the plotters and the pantsters, the aspiring and the experienced, the (interactive) media professionals and the masters of prose, and those with a thrilling story idea, or struggling with a "writer's block," as well as the instructors of creative writing and screenwriting.
We can have a near infinite variety of fantastic beings, magic helpers and aliens in our narrative media. Yet do you know what truly defines their "success" in the story? It is the (writer's) keen awareness of their narrative functions: what magic beings can do in and for the story. Centered on how to use the timeless myth and fantasy networks effectively and wisely in the modern-day storytelling, the Fictional Worlds books employ symbolic anthropology to guide writers and inform instructors. We should not forget that Homer may have been "many people" from around the Mediterranean Sea, who knew innumerable stories and legends of their era, while J.K. Rowling had studied Greek mythology at Cambridge University for four years before building her fictional world of Harry Potter.
Excited about writing fantasy, many modern-day writers end up learning the ropes, stories and motifs from... popular culture, which is not always original, enriching or wise. Cliches and superficial writing styles then spread around as a new standard. What can we learn from the anthropology of storytelling, and how to find the time-tested tales and best storytelling methods accumulated by humankind?
in search for inspiring creative techniques
Below: Powerful Storytellers... Orson Welles as the Narrator in Moby Dick (1956). Author Herman Melville. Screenwriter Ray Bradbury. Director John Huston.
Fictional Worlds examines how timeless tales can enrich the media and transmedia, while highlighting the practices shaping the values of our time. Story formulas distilled from myth, folklore, as well as the literary and screen classics, are examined as the potent catalysts for contemporary storytelling. Fictional Worlds serves as a framework for writers, offering them many practical ideas and techniques.
Traditions in Narrative and the Age of Visual Culture
Illustrates how to create:
stories empowered by genre
astonishing tales of "the impossible made possible"
stories about “unlikely bonds”
inspiring narratives about love and family
the figures of the symbolic fathers, mothers, daughters, and sons in storytelling
revelations about humanity in the mystery and thriller genres
compelling Hero’s Journeys
witty comedy and farce
story turns, twists and reversals
clever tricksters and villains
pathos and reverse pathos
The Grey Wolf Effect
The Munchausen Effect
unexpected cathartic endings
videogames and transmedia stories
Questions about Writing
What is one most important thing you need in order to write a great book?
Short answer: Big question.
You thought about it. A lot. You still don't get it! Something does not add up. How come? Why? Why?!! No friends or shrinks, even the self-help gurus, will help. Write about it! Make a story about a hero facing the same question or dilemma, with the similar or even more drastic obstacles. Surround him or her by the mixed crowd of friendly and hostile types, which either try to help in vain, or bring even more confusion. Create a testing ground, and model the situation (law, rule, pattern you are so concerned about). This way, inside your own fictional world, your curious readers and you, an inquisitive author, discover possible solutions and stress-test them in action... of your story. You can test-drive more than one choice of action, and examine all outcomes of your hero's several chosen paths at the crossroads. If unsure in your "literary fiction" skills and want a support of a genre, use a radical approach! Think of Hamlet with his own big question "To Be or Not to Be?" Place your Question in a murder mystery, if you must. Shakespeare and Dostoevsky did, and why not?
For now, you don't know the answer to this Big Question. Maybe your protagonist will? Together, with determination and passion, you may find just this one answer about life, for your own benefit, and that of your readers.
How many characters should be introduced in Chapter One? Some say 20.
Short answer: a team that works like a coil spring.
It is not a question of number. Consider having a coherent well-adjusted TEAM. A cast of characters must be designed as a coil spring (a device that is used to store energy and subsequently release it). The first chapter in the novel can be viewed as the beginning of dramatic arc from the Hook to the first threshold-complication that is called the Point of Attack. You need all key players, on both sides, to enter the stage, either physically or symbolically, i.e. being mentioned in a compelling context. Hamlet is accompanied by his companion Horatio (highlighting that the protagonist is a good man capable of true friendship and also in need of an interlocutor, a "sounding board" character for coming dialogues). The guards who are summoned by the otherworldly being to deliver his message to the prince, are not merely the background figures but are symbolic of two things: suspense and tragic irony. The setting - the Castle and the Kingdom - is a symbolic place of danger, from without and from within. But ironically, from some things, like a brother-murderer or a ghost, even the armed guards cannot protect. The Ghost enters. He is the voice of the murdered, and also the Father-figure whom Hamlet misses dearly, the "beloved dead." Through the Ghost's story-telling (a vivid story-within-the-story) two other key characters enter - the antagonist and usurper King Claudius, and the Queen. She is a neglectful Mother, and a Wife who loved one man, but now is a spouse of another, his killer. Here you have all the characters we need to set the dramatic action in motion: this group, or a character combination, is vital to the play's conflict and story development.
I am writing a novel and want to see it also on screen one day. Should I write a screenplay first, or a novel?
Short answer: How about to keep refreshing your drafts in progress by periodically altering two formats, taking advantage of both? Then adjusting your final versions to each format.
It is a great approach - to envision your work as both a book and a film. I do recommend to consider both formats while writing. It is useful for several reasons. First, you can always publish your story or novel, and it will exist as your literary work, regardless of who or how interprets it on-screen. Some filmmakers will take your work in the new directions in their screen versions, and they have the (artistic) right to do so. If published, your work remains independent from the interpretations of others. Secondly, this "dual vision" is useful for the process of writing. A screenplay format puts pressure on an author to write laconic, dense, rhythmical, and meaningful dialogues. A backbone of a screenplay, the scenes must be dynamic. This will help in a novel version, where a loss of rhythm and danger to get into lengthy descriptions are not so obvious. On the other hand, if your envision environment that is uniquely fitted to this particular situation, you have an opportunity to include your locale as a "character" in a novel. (See page "Chronos & Topos" of this site). Then you will think hard about how to transport this vivid image into a screenplay; perhaps through the characters' reactions to their surroundings. Yet most importantly, the best idea is to learn the rules of dramatic arc and envision it within your novel. One can always grow additional scenes, characters, or plot lines to enhance a simple story written for the screen, with an eye to developing it as a novel. Yet the story structure will retain a powerful arc within. Book Two, Fictional Worlds II: Dramatic Characters & Dramatic Action will be a useful guide to designing a story arc. And when the time comes to adapt your story to the screen, there will be no need to bring in screenwriting pros who must struggle with turning a novel into a play. (It took Bo Goldman no less than two years to complete a screenplay based on the novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, which earned the reputation of the best adaptation ever written and was awarded several Oscars).
Is your book series Fictional Worlds for the plotters or pantsers?
Short answer: Plotters, why not to relax a little? Pantsers, have an intelligent design...
I don't believe in the pantsers or plotters, in a sense that it is not a writer's "character" or "destiny." There are two powerful techniques, involving tapping into one's subconscious and making conscious artistic choices. Any writer who wants to succeed should learn both, and adjust his/her working style to any combination of the two. One may start with the "flow," relying on intuition, imagination and memory. Perhaps one shouldn't stop until the generous stream of imagery slows down. Then it always helps to leave one's art alone, and step aside, to have a fresh perspective. At some point, this writer must ask himself: "Is my boat ready to sail? Is there balance, structure, and the arc?" Then s/he must look back at what was written, and adjust, move, change, find missing pieces and fill in the voids; even, or especially, when experimenting with classical structures. This is a conscious part of work, a writer's craft. I believe that the writer is the most liberated and empowered when he can move from one mode to another and back, as needed. The knowledge of fundamental laws of art allows to feel secure when sailing off again on a journey into one's own subconscious. Such (trained) flexibility gives confidence and allows to work in any mode with ease. Fictional Worlds will inspire the pantser mode, stimulating imagination, with its many stories of journeys, passions and astonishing experiences. Yet, the book has a plenty of tips, lists, techniques and careful examinations of structure and montage, which a craftsman would appreciate, because they can put him in the clear-head "plotter mode" of artistic engineering. The "die-hard" pantsers will really enjoy to learn plotting, while the plotters should take it easy and relax, sometimes just "going with the a flow."
-- envision your story in both novel and screenplay formats
-- move the best pieces conceived within an alternative format to the other, i.e strong dialogues and scenes
-- have a plan of how a story could branch, with additional elements, i.e. characters and situations
-- put all action into the foundation of a strong transformative arc from the beginning of your writing process -- have a strong dramatic premise
-- be aware of the different temporal-rhythmical structures of the two formats, and adjust your pace for each one
-- your powerful descriptions of settings in the novel will inspire the director of cinematography to express this imagery through his art, while you can use the tensions between the characters and the environment to enhance your conflict build-up in a screenplay format.
You may find hundreds of useful creative writing exercises, grouped by chapter and section topics, in the digital interactive edition FICTIONAL WORLDS I: THE SYMBOLIC JOURNEY & GENRE SYSTEM (SHOP: ITUNES page). See Volume One in the iTunes store; Parts 2-4 are coming soon.
Any comments, questions and suggestions from writers, as well as creative writing instructors and students, are welcome.