Notes from Tom Ostler's October 13, 2012 workshop

Deconstruction of a popular movie

  • main plot arc
  • characters, challenges, goals and motivations

We're writing rough drafts, not novels; don't judge the end product on what you've just finished reading.

Movie: The Lion King

Snow Flake method: start small and build up complexity until you have something fully realized, ready to be plotted out.

Start with an overarching theme

Star Wars: Farm boy overthrows the government

Themes for the Lion King

  • Cub grows to lionhood and avenges his father's death.
  • Rejected lion takes his place on the throne
  • Son seeks father's approval
  • Son steps up to responsibility and rules kingdom
  • Destiny chases a runaway king
  • Good triumphs over Evil
  • Coming of age

Who are the main characters of the story

  • Simba: the young prince (PRIMARY CHARACTER)
    • motivation: looks up to his father, emulates him, loses his father, avoids his past, faces the past, avenges his father and takes his rightful spot
  • Scar: the evil uncle
  • Mufasa: the father
  • Sarabi: the mother
  • Nala: the girl friend
  • Zazu: the chancellor
  • Timone: the friend

Story arc: "3 disasters (or acts) plus an Ending" (Randy Ingersoll)

  • Disaster/Act 1: Scar's macchinations builds the tension in the first act --> the death of Mufasa and guilt of Simba
  • Act 2: Simba runs away, grows up
    • Nala is the driving force to get him to come back and face his fears
    • All of the great people who die are in the sky; he sees his (father's) reflection in the pool
    • -> seeking his father's approval
    • -> you can't run away from responsibility; you have to face up to them
    • -> It's not all about you; there is a home that you've left
  • Act 3: Confrontation between good (Simba) and evil (Scar); good always triumphs over evil
    • -> couldn't do it all on his own (relied on the lionness)

Plotted against: tension

  • opening scene
  • crises ...
  • climax
  • denouement

Having a strong antagonist rachets up the tension and give your protagonist reason and movitation to grow and expand

There are minor peaks and valleys even in the climactic point (this requires a rich story)

  • Mufasa has his own support group
  • Moral: you can't do it alone

Compelling, interesting, diverse story requires populating your story with 6-7 supporting characters, sub-plots that tell the larger story (e.g., hyenas that don't like being pushed around)

You can add the layers after you've written your main storyline.

The attraction/tension between Luke, Princess Leia, Han is part of the rich, nuanced secondary story

Coming up with ideas for a story (exercise)

Near-future story where technology and magic are one and the same; one group is trying to suppress this information; another group is trying to give it away for free.

  • The GPS comes to life
  • My mother the car

The Fantasy Group's story

MC finds out their imaginary friend is not imaginary, from another land; needs them to come with them to help

  • Main character: Mallory (female) - bit of a misfit, a loner, doesn't do well in school, no friends
  • Sister: Missy Beth
  • Imaginary friend: Pooka

Overarching theme

  • trust your instincts
  • take a chance on the unknown
  • adventures are good for you
  • friends are more important than sanity

No romance

Antagonist: Pooka

  • can take over Mallory's body if she brings Mallory
  • Mallory makes a Pooka-world friend who dies - showing the threat of the time limit


  • Act 1: ends when Mallory realizes Pooka is real and follows her over into the magical land
  • Act 2: ends when Pooka comes back to the real world as Mallory
  • Act 3: Time passes. Mallory tries to get her sister (who is now approaching 13) to see her before she crosses over into adolescence
    • Pooka has straightened out Mallory's life: getting straight A's and becoming popular (but mean)
    • All the mean people in the world are Pooka's
    • time limit: if you don't convince your real world person to cross over, you dissipate
  • Climax: They trick the Pooka-Mallory to go through a mirror and switch places with Mallory

Pooka is mean and ambitious; but you have to care about the pooka

Does every child have a Pooka? (Yes)

Lessons Learned

You can develop a rich storyline in a very short period of time, let your imagination runaway with you.

It is fun to do story plotting as a group and with a time limit.

See the plot doctoring forum in NaNoWriMo for plotting help.

Sci Fi

  • Title: Bunny Sushi
  • Overarching theme of the story: Don't put all your eggs in one basket
  • A colony has become routine; there is a communicaiton breakdown.
  • Act 1: everything is going well. The planet is thriving. A farmer Plucky (a rabbit farmer). His daughter Penny has made genetically modified rabbits that taste like fish. In the future, the oceans are too polluted for life.
  • No calcium on the planet (one element that is missing).
  • Penny has been teaching her pet rabbit Planky to play hide and seek; one day, she disappears.
  • Act 2: Communications with earth has broken down Dr. Fibonacci comes in. Faction with the farmers, no room for all the rabbits; there is a dictator faction.
  • Evangelical named Elvis "Don't be that guy"
  • Plucky the farmer is at a get-together in Act 1 and hears Elvis.
  • They ship Elvis and a lot of followers off to Earth (round trip will take ten years).
  • Dictator Mason is rallying the troops (people are weakening from just eating rabbit sushi)
  • Act 3: Dictator is ready to strike, people are at their weakness. Dr. Fibonacci figured out that Planky ate the communications wires.
  • Lord of the flies meets Hitchhiker's guide to the galaxy.
  • Dictator is ready to take control, rabbit farmers release the rabbits, when communications gets turned on, the first thing they hear is "Don't be that guy."
  • Book 2: Economic consequences of way too many bunnies that taste like fish.
  • Had to start with the problem rather than the theme (might be tied into science fiction)

Mainstream fiction: Thriller

  • Premise: A discredited doctor, perhaps a celebrity doctor, boards an airplane; believes that a young woman from a foreign country is a terorist, She believes that she is carrying some illnesss. But no one believes him. He becomes hysterical and is physically removed. End of first act.
  • Act 2: Passenger is a foreign person invited by the President to represent the positive effects of our policies in another nation. She represents the other country but has been infected by terrorists to infect the President. When the doctor tries to find her, she has disappeared. He cannot find her.
  • Act 3: The discredited doctor has fallen in love with the woman; his only reality is that he will have to kill her to save the President and the White House. Unfortunately, after he kills her, others she has infected do infect the President.

Central theme: difference between truth and perceived truth

The process of developing plots in just 20 minutes worked because we started small

Planning Tips

  • Define your main characters
  • Define your climax and major crises.
  • Know where you are going
  • Be willing to ignore your Plot -- you're defining living, breathing characters; they will want to do things you didn't think of. Let them surprise you.
  • Develop your own style of plotting.
  • Let your charactes speak to you.
  • Google is your friend.

NaNo tips

  • Stay connected (NaperWriMo forums, nano writing buddies, family & friends)
  • Don't look back! This is a rough draft after all.
  • Write for your reader self, not your writer self.
  • Surround yourself with positive reinforcement (post-it notes): My reminders: "Write like a poet." (embellish sentences, infuses the story with your personality--more entertaining for the reader) "Show, don't tell" (as novelists and story writers, we want to show what happens to the characters, show the action rather than summarizing it)
  • Use Cloud storage to save your story (e.g., Drop Box, Google Drive)
  • 50,000 words is an arbitrary goal; writing YOUR story is the true goal. Your success and failure shouldn't be based on an arbitrary number; it should be based on whether you feel good about what you've attempted.

Watch: Star Wars uncut (15 second segments) - very funny.