Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman
The adjectival subject verbed its object adverbially.
(Example: The old man ate cake quickly.)
The above sentence reflects the basic, normal syntax (word order) of the English language, which can be modified by additions of words, phrases and clauses, as necessary or desirable.
Reducing this syntax to one of subject-verb-object, and appending to it a final phrase or clause that identifies or explains its cause, motivation, or reason can suggest a storyline that can then be developed into a plot. Here are some examples, based on summaries in Fantasy and Horror: A Critical and Historical Guide to Literature, Illustration, Film, TV, Radio, and the Internet, edited by Neil Barron:
Most writers can come up with the subject (protagonist or antagonist), the verb (incident or action), and the object (which may or may not be the antagonist). The explanation as to why the incident or the action occurred is what often troubles authors--and it is upon just this item that the whole story hangs, for without a cause, a motive, or a reason, a sequence of incidents or a chain of actions (behaviors) has no meaning. Consequently, the story has no consequence or value. It is merely a meaningless succession of pointless happenings unrelated to one another except by chronology.
One of the beauties of a syntactical approach to creating storylines is that, in compiling a list of examples of the process, such as the one that we have complied here, based upon stories’ summaries in Fantasy and Horror, one can obtain, as it were, a bird’s-eye view of causes, motives and reasons--of the explanatory origins or consequences--of a plot’s incidents or a protagonist’s or an antagonist’s actions, which allows the writer to give significance and understanding to such incidents or actions.
Motivated actions, or behaviors (which, unlike incidents, which are caused, rather than motivated) have ends, or purposes; such actions are goal-directed. They may be directed toward self-satisfaction or the satisfaction of another. In either case, they fulfill various needs that psychologists have identified. Some needs can be fulfilled by oneself; others needs must be fulfilled by someone or something other than oneself; and still other needs may be fulfilled by either oneself, may be fulfilled by another, or may or must be fulfilled by both the self and another who act together, in cooperative interaction, with one another. (Abraham Maslow identifies classes of universal basic human needs that energize, or motivate, human behavior: physiological needs, safety need, love and belonging needs, esteem needs, and self-actualization needs, and other psychologists identify still other types of universal needs with which writers should be familiar.)
In horror fiction, the past often affects the present, and the present often affects the future. Sometimes, these effects are intended; they are set up by a character on purpose, to initiate future incidents. Other times, they seem to be merely the workings of chance. They may be caused by a character’s performance of a ritual by which he or she hopes to impart a supernatural status to a natural object, process, set of circumstances, condition, or event. They may result from the contact of two points in the space-time continuum that are usually separate. An action may be the result of hubris, or they may be intended to effect catharsis, or a venting of powerful emotion.
The explanation for the incidents that occur or the actions that the protagonist or the antagonist performs may also suggest a back story--or, at least, elements that should be developed and, eventually, explained in the back story. For example, if an architect is motivated to perform ritual murders as a means of “baptizing” the cathedrals he designs or builds, in order to cause later repetitions of these initial killings, the reader, at some point, will want and expect to know why--in other words, what motivates this character to do want to do such a thing to begin with? The character’s immediate purpose, or motive, is to cause later repetitions of the original killings; his or her motive for wanting the initial murders to be repeated might be called the final motive. Learning the immediate cause, the reader will be content to read further, but he or she will expect to be told the final cause as well, at some point in the story, or the character’s actions will, despite the immediate cause having been identified, remain baseless and incredible. Withholding, but ultimately disclosing, the final cause as well is a good mean of maintaining suspense--as long as, at some point, the final cause is also revealed.
Note: All summaries are quoted directly (except where modifications are indicated) from Alan Frank’s The Horror Film Handbook.
The storyline, or premise, of a narrative should normally follow the subject-verb-object syntax that is typical of English sentences and include any necessary articles:
A bishop unleashes a demon.
Usually, the subject identifies the story’s protagonist; the verb, his or her action; and the object the recipient of the protagonist’s action.
The storyline may add words, phrases, or dependent clauses to provide additional information about any or all three of these elements. However, the additional details should be necessary and minimal, at this point. For example, Since this story (Abby) (1974) is set in an African country (Nigeria) and, in fact, the demon itself is a native, as it were, to this country, the bishop’s race may be regarded as significant; therefore, it is mentioned; otherwise, it would not be:
A black bishop unleashes a Nigerian demon.
If it is pertinent to the plot of the story to further describe any of these elements, additional words, phrases, or clauses can be added. For example, the type of demon can be indicated; in our example, based upon the movie Abby, the demon is one “of sexuality,” so this phrase is added, after the noun “demon”:
A black bishop unleashes a Nigerian demon of sexuality and evil-doing. . . .
This sentence comprises the setup of the story; it is the inciting moment--the one incident in the action of the story that sets everything else in the narrative in motion, the spark, or catalyst, that ignites the remaining actions of the plot. To identify this moment as the cause of the actions which follow, rather than merely their antecedent, many writers convert the sentence into an adverbial clause by adding “When” to the beginning of the group of words:
When a black bishop unleashes a Nigerian demon of sexuality and evil-doing. . . .
What was formerly an independent clause (“A black bishop unleashes a Nigerian demon of sexuality and evil-doing”) is now a dependent clause (“When a black bishop unleashes a Nigerian demon of sexuality and evil-doing”), and an adverbial one, at that, which will modify the as-yet non-existent independent clause that will follow it, completing the sentence. The independent clause (underlined in the example, below) will identify the effect, or consequence, of the cause that the dependent, adverbial clause identifies:
When a black bishop unleashes a Nigerian demon of sexuality and evil-doing, his daughter-in-law becomes possessed.
As before, if it is pertinent to the plot of the story to further describe any of these elements, additional words, phrases, or clauses can be added. For example, the location in which the daughter-in-law lives may be deemed relevant; if so, it should be identified (as it is here, underlined):
When a black bishop unleashes a Nigerian demon of sexuality and evil-doing, his daughter-in-law in Louisville becomes possessed.
The consequence that follows from the storyline’s initial cause can itself become the cause of a subsequent consequence, as in the extension of the premise (in which the added consequence is underlined):
When a black bishop unleashes a Nigerian demon of sexuality and evil-doing, his daughter-in-law in Louisville becomes possessed and he has to perform an exorcism.
This is a fairly well-written summary of Abby’s basic plot, or storyline, although the phrase “and evil-doing” possibly could be omitted. As such, it specifies the three parts of the story, in a cause-and-effect sequence, thereby representing the germ of a logical, coherent, well-structured, three-act premise:
Beginning (Act I): A black bishop unleashes a Nigerian demon of sexuality and evil-doing.
Middle (Act II): His daughter-in-law in Louisville becomes possessed.
End (Act III): He has to perform an exorcism.
A storyline can also state or suggest the protagonist’s motive, as this one does, in summarizing the plot of The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971), in which, here, underlining has been added to indicate the motive:
A wealthy musical genius, the horribly disfigured Dr. Phibes, plans to murder all the surgeons who failed to save his wife’s life and uses methods of death based on the ten curses of [i. e., on] Pharaoh.
In other words, Dr, Phibes is motivated by revenge. This premise could be improved:
A wealthy musical genius, the horribly disfigured Dr. Phibes uses methods of death based on the ten curses of [i. e., on] Pharaoh to murder all the surgeons who failed to save his wife’s life.
Notice that this summary, in addition to suggesting the protagonist’s motive (revenge), also identifies an unusual twist: Dr. Phibes will employ “methods of death based on the ten curses on Pharaoh.” If a story contains such a twist, the storyline should indicate it, as this one does, because it is such unusual twists that add interest to a storyline. However, a writer is still well advised to start with the simplest subject-verb-object method of delineating the original germ of the plot and then add such words, phrases, or clauses that seem justified to present all pertinent details, whether of character, setting, unusual plot twist, motive, or otherwise:
A genius murders surgeons.
The following summary (of The Abominable Snowman) also indicates the movie’s three-part plot structure, the character’s motive, and the setting:
An expedition travels into the Himalayas [Beginning (Act I), which constitutes the inciting moment and includes an identification of the setting as “the Himalayas”] in search of the legendary Yeti [Middle (Act II), including the characters’ motive] and discover the creatures to be monstrous but friendly [End (Act III)].
Notice that this summary could be recast in the “when-this, that” format:
When an expedition travels into the Himalayas in search of the legendary Yeti[,] [the team] discover the creatures to be monstrous but friendly.
Even a classic like Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) can fit this format:
[When] a young woman steals $40,000 from her employer and stops over at an isolated motel . . . she is killed by a schizophrenic transvestite who believes that he is his own mother.
[Beginning (Act I)]: A young woman steals $40,000 from her employer.
[Middle (Act II)]: [She] stops over at an isolated motel.
[End (Act III)]: She is killed by a schizophrenic transvestite who believes that he is his own mother.
Although this summary doesn’t state or suggest her motive, the movie itself does, and the summary could easily be adapted to do likewise:
[When] a young woman steals $40,000 from her employer to finance a new life with her boyfriend before stopping over at an isolated motel . . . she is killed by a schizophrenic transvestite who believes that he is his own mother.
Barron, Neil, ed. Fantasy and Horror: A Critical and Historical Guide to Literature, Illustration, Film, TV, Radio, and the Internet.
Frank, Alan. The Horror Film Handbook. Barnes & Noble Books: Totowa, NJ. 1982.