Understanding your story fundamentals is key to great storytelling. How well you know your fundamentals will be evident in every word on every page.
Story fundamentals are the big parts of your tale, just as potatoes and leeks are the heart of potato leek soup. These fundamentals include all your characters, the places they appear, and major concepts like wizardry or time travel that appear in your story — like scars on foreheads, wands, and talking hats that assign students to houses in a wizarding school. Hogwarts can stand by itself outside the Harry Potter stories as it is a fabulous fundamental. In fact, the phenomenal success of Harry Potter has a lot do with the strength of the story fundamentals. Quidditch anyone?
Story fundamentals are what make up your literary elements, characters, plot, setting, theme, etc. Fundamentals are the big ideas captured on storyboards, mind maps, outlines, or the story synopsis. They are what book clubs discuss: “I loved this character and the way she was ready for anything!”
Do you have a working list of your fundamentals? Do you consult it, meditate on it, dream about it? Are your characters well-developed? Is your setting appropriate and picked to amplify the messages of your story? Is your plot causally linked and all your circles closed in a satisfying way?
Until your story fundamentals are fully envisioned, you have work to do. List those fundamentals and have a good, long think about them — again and again — until you’ve gotten all you can get out of them.
A galaxy far, far away
What is Luke Skywalker without Darth Vader? What is the importance of the stolen plans hidden by Princess Leia in R2D2 without the Death Star?
Star Wars, like all great stories, is an ecosystem of characters, setting, and plot. We think of protagonists and villains, settings and themes, but what really matters is how they all play off each to create compelling drama.
If you know a story, you can easily write out the fundamentals because they are truly “big stuff.” In The Godfather saga, the primary fundamental is the concept of a mafia godfather and the moral code of the family. In Cinderella, Cinderella is the primary fundamental, followed by the prince and the fairy godmother.
You can think of any story in terms of its fundamentals — yours included.
If we were to write out the story fundamentals for Star Wars, we might think of Luke and Darth Vader, as this is the ultimate story of good and evil. These two characters and what they want are at the very heart of the story.
Or we could think more philosophically and think in terms of the Rebellion and the Empire — Luke and Darth Vader being representatives spotlighted in this particular story.
A full list of fundamentals for any story would list the full cast, places, and key concepts. For Star Wars, that’s all the characters down to the Sand People, the main planets (such as Alderaan, which is destroyed by the Death Star), concepts like the Force and its expression in the Jedi order, and tangibles, like lightsabers and the Millennium Falcon.
All your fundamentals can be thought of as “tangibles.” They are real in the sense that they are independent of your story. Darth Vader can appear at Halloween on your doorstep. He could have a Quidditch broom or a sword named Excalibur.
Once you think of your fundamentals as tangibles, you can work with them, like clay, molding them to work together as a group. You can work with them like chess pieces, arranging them, moving them as the action unfolds. You can even imagine your tangibles appearing in other stories and story worlds. Off the page, they aren’t mired in jungles of long text but are free to move, change, and interact.
List all your story fundamentals if you haven’t already done so. You can do this as a word cloud, putting them on a piece of paper in any orientation you like, or you can list them in order of importance or as they chronologically appear in the story.
Look at them in as many ways as possible. Identify the relationships between them and unlock their potential. Imagine the obvious and surprising consequences of their being thrown together. You are looking to deepen your knowledge of your own story and how your fundamentals relate to one another and form groups. Work to tighten and strengthen these linkages into a web that ensnares your reader.
Try putting all your fundamentals on index cards. Now mix and match them. How do Luke and Leia get along? How do Leia and Han Solo get along? You might see connections you didn’t before or add new details to distinguish your characters and help them interact better.
Think of your fundamentals as a collection. Are some characters less developed than others? Do you need to merge two characters into one? Make your villain fiercer? Change the hobby of your romantic lead to fishing so that he spends more time on the river where your heroine lives? Should you reimagine the setting to increase the conflict or possibilities for external events to propel the story?
Think about the order in which your story fundamentals appear — and why. Different combinations will be present in each chapter, and you can make more complex constellations as you progress the story. The goal of working your fundamentals, independent of putting words to the page, is to push their development. Until they are fleshed out, you’ll be hard-pressed to create a convincing story.
The strategic essence
A great practice is to list five defining features of each fundamental in priority order to capture the essence of each. Each is a strategic choice you make based on the patterns you want in your story (love, war, romance, family ties, deaths, births, etc.).
Run down them all as a set. Define all the juicy interactions. This is what drives the story – the desires and motivations of each character and how the other fundamentals work to help or hinder the acquisition of that want.
To return to Star Wars, the defining feature of Luke is that the Force is strong in him and that he’s the son of a Jedi stuck working as a farmer. Certainly, it’s important that he is Leia’s brother, though this is a hidden detail for a long time — as is the fact that they are twin children of Darth Vader.
Luke’s primary features characterize him and how he relates to the Star Wars world — and the same is true for every character and tangible — which helps explain why Star Wars is such a legendary epic.
Your fundamentals are your story
Taken together, your fundamentals are the strategic essences of your story. Optimize each individually and as a unified set. Your manuscript is fully developed when your story fundamentals are unified and work flawlessly and synergistically to create your big picture.