Download our free handout outlining 12 major story elements
Every other week, I chat with a different author, editor or craft expert on a different foundation or aspect of storytelling. Recently, my guest was writing coach Stefan Edmunds, author of “The Eight Crafts of Writing,” who discussed the original origins of story (cave drawings and fireside tales) and how modern storytellers have adapted stories to appeal to today’s readers.
You can listen to our chat here:
In our chat, Stefan shares his views on the adversity cycle that an individual goes through when facing adversity – and how we can mimic those reactions and thought processes in our characters and plots.
He also discusses how the use of dramatic elements brings the story to life, and leads to a complete experience that includes 12 major story elements:
The Origins of Story Outline
- Inciting incident
- Story goal
- The key ability
- All-is-lost moment
For more information about the adversity cycle and a breakdown of these story elements, download Stefan’s free handout and keep it handy. To get a deeper diver into all these story elements, click above to watch the full video chat. The transcript is below.
- The Origins of Story (24-page handout)
- Stefan’s author website: https://eightcrafts.com
- Explore Marlowe (the A.I. tool for fiction authors): authors.ai/marlowe
Full chat transcript:
Alessandra Torre: Hi everyone. This is Alessandra Torre with Authors AI, and this is First Draft Friday. We are back from our summer hiatus and I am so happy today to be chatting about story outlines with Stefan. So Stefan, welcome to the show. It’s great to have you. And today we’re going to be chatting about origins of story outline, but also just a brief kind of overview and walkthrough of what makes a great outline. So without further ado, do you want to introduce yourself to the audience? A little bit of your history.
Stefan Edmunds: Sure. First, thank you for having me. My name is Stefan Emunds. That’s a German name and I’m a visionary fiction author. So fiction stories with an enlightenment component, the most famous visionary fiction novel is the Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. But I also wrote a book about writing, which is called “The Eight Crafts of Writing.” And there’s a little story behind it. So five years into my writing journey, I felt a bit lost in the weeds. I had learned a lot, but I did not have the overview of the writing crafts. And I felt like a lost in the mountains. You know, I climbed one mountain, learned a craft or a skill just to find out there is another mountain waiting for me. So at one point, I was so upset with the situation that I stopped writing and said, OK, now I need to get myself an overview and everything I need to learn so I know how many mountains I still have to climb. And when I was done with that, I realized, oh, many other officers probably want the same thing. So that’s how I came to write the Eight Crafts of Writing.
Alessandra: That’s fantastic. And to recap, he writes visionary fiction and a lot of the crafts we’re talking about are different elements of a story. I think that’s why a lot of new authors quit because they don’t know how much is left for them to learn and it just feels overwhelming. So today we’re talking about story origins, so can you explain or talk a little bit about the origin of story outline?
Stefan: OK. So the original story outline is the adversity cycle. When I was writing my stories, I used the Hero’s Journey and not ended borrowers itself to visionary fiction because many visionary fiction stories, I actually journeys like the Alchemist, but there were things about the Hero’s Journey that always felt a bit weird to me and I could use it as a template, but there are parts which I couldn’t fully understand. So for example, the approaching of the cave, I mean the ordeal in the cave is pretty straightforward. That’s the mid-point where the protagonist acquires the key ability, the sword, in order to vanquish the antagonist. But why is the approach of the cave, which is a phase, not a milestone. Why is that so important? And I asked around and nobody could explain it to me.
And another thing was the LX year, the return was the LX year. Is the LX year, the same thing as the sword. And if it’s the same thing, why suddenly it’s called different. And last but not least the hero’s journey does not foresee a climax. So you always have to combine it with for example, the three X seven plot point structure, for example. And I don’t know if it happened to you, but sometimes I read a story or watch the movie where the writer used the hero’s journey, but it didn’t feel natural, and I could see the wrier at work. So at one point, I wanted to get to the bottom of what was bothering me. So I thought about it very carefully, and I realized that I felt it’s unnatural.
So asking yourself what is natural? And that was the right question to ask. And this the answer for that question led me to a new definition of story and the discovery of the adversity cycle. So what are stories, stories are reflections of life and life is a string of experiences. Everything that happens in our life, we experience. What happens to us things that happens outside of us, our thoughts, feelings, emotions that happen inside of us, we always experienced those. So life and experience is the same thing, and stories are then virtual experiences. But not all experiences can make it into a story. And in real life, we have good and bad times good and bad stories, but in stories, it’s only always bad stories. There must be some kind of adversity or it’s not a story. It will only be an anecdote.
For example, if you tell your friends about your last vacation; that’s an anecdote. But if somebody mock you while you were on a vacation, you have a story to tell. So no adversity, no story. So therefore, I define stories as virtual adventures and adventures are hopefully inspiring struggles with adversity. So then I asked myself, OK, so how do we face adversity then in real life? And turns out there is something like an adversity cycle we go through every time we face a new type of adversity. And I think this is if I explained that cycle with an example, is that OK?
Alessandra: Absolutely. And for those of you listening, first of all, don’t be shy, feel free to pop any questions that you have into the comment section. If you RSVP for this event, I did email out this morning a copy to a handout, it’s really fantastic. We’ll follow along closely with a lot of what we’re talking about. So if you miss that handout download, we’ll also pop it here into chat. And to dive in deeper, you can check out Stefan’s book at eightcrafts.com. So yes, please, if you have an example, that’d be great.
Stefan: Yeah. The example, and the explanation is also in the handout and will just recap that here quickly. So adversity makes itself felt in our life first through symptoms. So there’s Pete, who is a computer programmer and a gamer and he neglects apartment maintenance, and one day his kitchen sink is dripping. And he’s gaming, he’s busy and lazy so he ignores it. But of course, adversity the symptoms worsen and then the dripping starts getting annoying. So the annoyance is the second phase. So what we usually do when something annoys us, we try to do a quick fix or a quick work around. In this case, Pete, he ties the pipe below the sink. And for a while, it stops dripping, but after a while, it starts dripping again and symptoms worsen again, and it starts leaking and the kitchen four floods. So now something’s at stake, so that’s the next stage.
Something is at stake and that forces Pete to go into an introspection. So he changes from subjective reaction to symptoms, to an active analysis of the root cause of the problem of the adversity. So he goes to Google, he goes to YouTube, checks out some plumbing videos and then he takes apart. The pipe turns out the culprit is a worn rubber washer. He replaces this and puts the pipe back together, and the problem is solved. And not only is the problem solved, but he now knows plumbing. So next time a pipe leaks, it’s not going to be an adventure anymore. He will fix it in no time and without any tension and stress and frustration. So that’s the adversity cycle. And how do we get from the adversity to the story cycle is by adding dramatic devices.
So I imagined that in the early days when our ancestors still dwell in cave, at the bonfire, they would tell real life adventures they had. Killing a memo or escaping a tiger or kidnapping a woman from a neighbor clan, things like that. And as storytelling evolved, they added dramatic devices to embellish the stories. And when the Greek came, they then lifted the storytelling to an art form. The first time books appeared and the great Greek theaters appeared, so it became an art form and took a life on its own. So I believe when Joseph Campbell who wrote the Hero’s Journey, what he did is he analyzed hundreds of stories. And what he did is he extracted the dramatic devices and put them into a sequence, and that became the Hero’s Journey, but he lost the adversity cycle on the way. So that’s then the reason why sometimes if a writer applies to the Hero’s Journey without knowing the adversity cycle, it feels unnatural.
Alessandra: So if I understand correctly – first of all, when was the Hero’s Journey created? What timeframe?
Stefan: That’s like a hundred years ago or 80 years ago, but Joseph Campbell and then came Christopher, it was like 50 years ago with a simplified version of it.
Alessandra: So you have a story, you have adversity, and then you’re also adding in the realistic elements, which is what we were talking about there. And I love that real life example because it is very true. I will avoid everything until it’s an issue. But it can be applied to so many more things, not just a dripping sink. It can be a problem in your relationship, you know?
Stefan: Yeah, I mean, work around are actually big business. I mean, I don’t want to say anything bad about pharma industry, but they sell a lot of workarounds instead of solutions to sick persons. For blood pressure medicine, it just presses the symptoms and you will have to take them for the rest of their life. And it doesn’t do anything against the blood pressure. So the work around seems a bit of a small thing and story, but actually it is in real life. It’s actually a big thing – work around.
Alessandra: I love that. So how do you get from… so you have the adversity cycle in the story cycle and you get between the two with dramatic elements. Is that correct?
Stefan: Dramatic elements or dramatic devices, for example, the mid-point when the protagonist acquires the key ability to vanquish the antagonist, that’s very real to life because we always face to get to the bottom of the problem at one point. But the all is lost moment, for example, at the 75% mark, that’s very dramatic and all those lost moments have been very rare in life, but almost every time in stories. So, that would be an example for a dramatic device.
Alessandra: That’s a great point. So, if I’m a new author and I’m writing my story and it feels flat or I’ve followed a typical story outline, but it just doesn’t seem to have a lot of life. I need to add more dramatic elements. Is that a suggestion that you would have heightened the stakes?
Stefan: Yeah, there’s this balance between real to life and drama. You can go wrong on both sides, so you cannot have too much drama and mellow drama. You can have not enough drama, so then there will be not enough tension or curiosity, but you also can be false to life. For example, if your story arc feels unnatural, like I notice it sometimes, the best way is to go back to the adversity cycle and use that to analyze where it is unnatural. For example, maybe you’re already in the stake phase, but then you still show some symptoms, which then gets boring because you’re already in the steak phase, in the solution phase, and you’re already soaring towards the climax. Then you shouldn’t come back to symptoms and things like that.
Alessandra: That also solves, I think the problem, a lot of, especially new authors, have situations where the solutions are too easy, right? For example, there’s a problem. And then there’s magically, you know, whatever item you need right there to fix it. So when you’re writing your story, are these adversity cycles like throughout it, like there might be four or five in a novel? Or the adversity cycle is part of the giant, like if this is your outline, the adversity cycle in the build-up? I’m trying to picture if whether adversity cycles are small mini solutions or if they’re a bigger part of the story,
Stefan: OK, there’s always one major adversity cycle. And that’s the story arc, which is then guild with dramatic devices, which for example, you can take from the Hero’s Journey. So you have a mix between the adversity cycle and the Hero’s Journey, and that spans over your whole story. But you can also use the adversity cycle for a scene. Let’s say the protagonist, something happens in the situation the protagonist is in and his face was a new type of adversity. Yeah, you can use the adversity cycle to get the protagonist through the scene in a natural way.
Alessandra: Yeah, I think that’s great. So what are some of the advantages or benefits of using an adversity cycle?
Stefan: Yeah, like I mentioned earlier now, it’s very easy to distinguish between what is real to life and what is dramatic device or what is drama. And if your story arc feels unnatural, you can use the adversity cycle to analyze what went wrong or what is misplaced. I believe one can also use the adversity cycle as a minimum plot outline, you know, so you take the phases, symptoms, annoyance stake, and key ability finding the key ability, plus the obligatory scenes of your genre. So in romances, happily ever after, and then you have a minimum, you have your key scenes, which become then the skeleton of your story outline. And you can also use the adversity cycle to analyze variations of story, outline and understand why they work.
So for example in action stories the writer jumps right into the steak phase. So he skips all the symptoms and the annoyance and things like that, right away he puts life and death at stake. And action stories need to do that, but that causes a problem because in the story, you need to keep raising the stakes to keep the reader engaged or your attention will drop. And once you put life and death at stake, there are not many options of raising the stakes.
Maybe somebody’s life at that stage, then the protagonist’s life is at stake, then his lover’s life is at stake or his community’s at stake or the country or the earth, the planet or universe. And that’s the reason why many action stories for example, James Bond, they always end up with mankind at stake, because you run out of options to raise the stakes.
Alessandra: That’s really interesting. I’ve never even thought about that, but you’re right. Like in action story – when I look back at action stories, that’s a great point.
Stefan: Yeah, they ran out of stakes. But on the other side, if you watch or read disaster movies or horror movies, they like to start with the symptoms that they let the little symptoms pop up here and there and let different characters notice them. It’s very difficult for the characters to connect the dots, and only if they come together, then suddenly realize what’s going on. And the Netflix series who is doing this very well is Stranger Things. And I didn’t count it, but I believe it’s always the fourth or fifth episode of every season where then all the different small groups of characters come together and they like, oh, this happened to me, this happened to me, and then everybody realized what’s going on.
Alessandra: That’s interesting. So it’s different story threads, but they needed to all compare their story.
Stefan: Yeah. And what I also find a little bit funny is superhero stories. So in real life, first we face adversity and then we try to find the key ability to solve it. In superhero stories, the key ability drops into the lap of the protagonist at the beginning of the story, and that’s usually the inciting incident. I forgot the first thing, then Parker gets bitten by the spider and then you get Spiderman. And so you get the key ability first, and then he tries to find someone to use it on, an adversity or antagonist. So it’s exactly the opposite in real life, but it works.
Alessandra: I’m trying to think about romance and how in a romance… romance oftentimes starts kind of all happy and cheery, you know, and then the stakes get higher. And that is very much like your adversity cycle example is great where there’s little things that you might overlook, and then they start to become bigger and bigger problems until…
Stefan: Like in relationship, you know, at first everything is nice and then the symptoms start popping up until they have to face the issue, you know, whatever it is in the romance.
Alessandra: At first, you don’t mind the dirty clothes on the floor and then they start getting worse and worse. Yeah, absolutely. That’s great. I really like your application across the different genres. I’m trying to think if there are… in mysteries, I would think is the same, like stranger things where it’s a little bit more and more – as you get more and more clues, they start unfolding. So what about in your genre as a visionary, it’s more the slow gradual… If you’re on a journey, how does that normally unfold?
Stefan: OK, that depends because visionary fiction is actually not an external genre, like thriller or romance. It’s an internal genre because it’s all about the expansion of consciousness or revelation or unlearn something, one cannot learn the school and things like that. So you can actually write a visionary fiction in any kind of external genre. You can write a thriller, you can write a romance, or you can write an adventure story, like in the case of the Alchemist, that’s actually an adventure. He’s going on a journey to find the treasure, so that’s an adventure. Now I have to say in these kinds of stories, like adventure stories, protagonistic forces prevail, and adversity is a little bit on the sideline in this kind of story, so you need to keep that in mind. So if you have an antagonistic story or a story where antagonistic forces prevailed, you have you have the adversity bursting into somebodies life and creating the symptoms and unraveling more and more. But if you have a protagonistic story like adventure and maybe also romance, it’s more like an exciting story. Yeah, and adversity, it shows up later on a little bit around, I would say in the second or third act and just, you know, making the life for the protagonist a little bit difficult, but it never gets to life and death stakes and things like that, so you need to keep that in mind.
Alessandra: So talking about the antagonist, in your handout, you talked about how adversity and antagonist are not the same thing. Can you dive in a little deeper to how they work together?
Stefan: OK. Yeah. That’s actually, I believe a very important thing to consider. So the way I think about adversity is, it applies to everybody in the story. Adversity is a forceful power or thing that unravels, as long as nobody opposes it, it will fully unravel and take over whatever it wants to take over. So the protagonist is the one who opposes this unraveling power, and the antagonist is the one who profits from the adversity and try to capitalize it. I’m thinking of an example. The other day I rewatched No Time. I don’t know if you know that. That’s science fiction, where time becomes the currency. And if you run out of this, like a clock in your body, and if you run out of time, you die, so everybody pays with time. The protagonist is somebody who helps people to survive. Borrows time here or finds time and gives it to them so they can live a bit longer. And most of them live from day-to-day, but the antagonist is somebody who actually profits from this and he accumulates a lot of time for himself. So the others are in this dire need and he can then control the poor sections of society. So the protagonist opposes adversity and the antagonist capitalizes adversity because he profits from it. If you don’t have an antagonist, and if you don’t find one, think about the work arounds. So you have an adversity and people are applying work arounds for this adversity, so who could profit from work-arounds? And that’s usually then an antagonist, that’s how you can find your antagonist.
Alessandra: I love that. I liked that a lot. Who can profit from work arounds, yeah. So whose benefit is it for this not to be solved, for this problem to be solved because they’re profiting from the work arounds. Yeah, I like that. We’re almost out of time. If anybody has questions, now’s the time to shout them out. We did have someone on Facebook who said, a modern and approachable presentation of the Hero’s Journey is the book is “Take Off Your Pants” by Libby Hawker. I don’t know if you’ve read that Stefan, but that does kind of lead into the last question I was going to ask you, which is how does the adversity cycle compare to story outline methods like the Hero’s Journey? Is it adding the realistic component? Are there any other story outline methods that you wanted to mention that you studied when creating this?
Stefan: Yeah. I mean, the only story outline methods I worked with was the Hero’s Journey, and then the seven plot points, three X structure, and the five commandments from story grid. But again, if you use this methodology, you can always end up with a story arc that doesn’t feel natural, so the adversity cycle is always a fallback. What you want to do, you want write real to life. So we always need to think, OK, what is real life? What is real to life? And that’s what the adversity cycle does for you.
Alessandra: Yeah, because even in fantasy books, you still have the real to life component of the characters. We are human – I mean, we, well, even if we’re not human, we think like humans, so we have the decision-making abilities, but also bad traits, like putting off a problem until we have to solve it, especially if you’re doing other things and battling other forces and trying to stay alive. I’m really interested by that, “No Time” I’m going to have to watch. It’s a movie you said?
Stefan: Yeah, it’s a movie, No Time.
Alessandra: It sounds fascinating. And I’m curious if it came from a book, but yeah, it’s a fantastic concept so I’m going to have to watch that to see how they told that story. But in wrapping up, how can people follow you? Your book is not yet out, your visionary books; they can’t read that… oh, we did have a question William ask… Oh, first of all, is it No time or End time, do you know? I think someone’s trying to find out.
Stefan: No time.
Alessandra: No time. OK. Perfect. And William said, great stuff. Are you going to write another book on writing?
Stefan: Oh, yes. It’s already in the work. The next book I write is a revision management process. So, I will outline how you can author your story, how you can come up with your theme with your story arc, with your rudimentary characterization and rudimentary world setting. And if you have that all in place, you can then write your first draft and then how you can move from one draft to another. And I will outline that too, because if you don’t have a proper procedure, it’s very chaotic, the writing process. And it took me a long time for myself to come up with a step-by-step procedure where I don’t get distracted from what I’m actually trying to accomplish, so that will be the next book.
Alessandra: Yeah. And I love that topic because just like with writing a book, a lot of authors also get overwhelmed with rewrites and revisions and edits, so that’s fantastic. He said, hope that’s soon. Do you have an expected release date for that book?
Stefan: Yeah, actually on my website, you can sign up for free beta version of that book. You can download it for free and read it and you should like comment and help me to improve it before I publish it.
Alessandra: OK, fantastic. So again, Stephen’s website is eightcrafts.com, and thank you so much for joining us today. And for everyone watching, if you have not checked out Marlowe, Marlowe is our artificial intelligence that can read your manuscript and provide almost instant feedback on its plot structure, characters, pacing, and more. You can try out Marlow for free at authors.ai or purchase her pro report, which is a fantastic report that I think will blow you away. So be sure to visit authors.ai, to find out about Marlow. Thank you for watching First Draft Friday with Stefan. Again, his website is eightcrafts.com. And thank you so much for being here today. It’s been fantastic. Thank you guys for joining in and we will see you all in two weeks at the next First Draft Friday.