One of the most memorable videos I’ve watched was the PBS Masterpiece Mystery interview* of Chris Lang and the discussion about his story development strategy.
Story Development Strategy
I got hooked on the Unforgotten series (Amazon Prime), binge watching four seasons spanning 18 hours. A combination of script and acting drew me in, but to be clear, this wasn’t your typical murder mystery and police procedural set in the UK. As the story unfolded, the cast continued to reveal secrets that made me want to know more about the characters and the writer.
Chris Lang not only gave a candid interview, but he posted free downloads* of the Unforgotten scripts, satisfying my quest to understand how he crafted the intriguing series.
Story Development Tips
Based on my notes from the interview and website, here’s how to put 17 tips from Chris Lang’s story development strategy to work.
- Remain fluid.
Enjoy the revelations as your story unfolds, and the characters develop.
- Add markers in your text for missing information.
For example, fill in plot holes as needed after you write the gist of your story.
- Show ordinary people investigating extraordinary crimes.
Create relatable characters who rise up to deal with remarkable circumstances.
- Use those “real situations” that arise in life (e.g., home, work, and play) to contrast against the “extraordinary crime.”
Emphasize what happens when the daily routines of characters are overshadowed by the aftermath of a stunning event.
- Make each story in the series standalone, payoff the promises made to readers (e.g., resolve the mystery), and continue the characters in the next narrative.
Don’t disappoint readers with cheap cliffhangers, and instead, give them story closure but leave them wanting more of the essential characters. Note: Keep in mind readers buy into the story’s plot, but they continue reading the series because of the characters.
- Show the realistic tolls circumstances inflict on people.
Communicate the characters’ choices and actions to show how those individuals navigate through life. Note: Besides entertainment, readers want inspiration and they seek information on how they can overcome life’s challenges.
- Use things you know, but make them more interesting by taking a somewhat cynical view.
Build on your life experiences and knowledge by showing what may seem familiar and uninteresting, but has hidden facets — even negative — that readers will find fascinating (i.e., a form of emotional voyeurism).
- Make the descriptions of people, events, and settings a visual feast for the reader.
Go beyond the usual descriptions and touch readers’ emotions with well-chosen words, using all the senses.
- Create a level of empathy for the characters and the victim.
Reach deep, making your descriptions and word choices visceral and primal.
- Show how everyday characters can be decent yet do indecent things.
Through the storyline, get readers to think: “There but for the grace of God go I.” Note: This is one of my favorite tips because it can turn anyone into one of the most interesting villains, causing readers to wonder what they might do given similar circumstances.
- Show how common interactions between characters can reveal uncommon insights.
Through dialogue and action, show the traits and behaviors that reveal the inner person.
- Write the story in a way that shows a level of respect for those who do what needs to be done despite the obstacles.
Everyday people who solve extraordinary problems have fears and doubts, yet they move forward despite negative emotions and significant obstacles.
- Research to discover past events and rewrite with a twist.
Take life’s common events and portray them in ways that force readers to notice the things they take for granted in unexpected ways.
- Make a case that we never really know well those around us.
Reveal the secrets that drive bizarre behaviors, and show how those dark secrets can be hidden for years until something pulls back the veil. Note: Refer to tip #10.
- Use foreshadowing.
Cause readers to ask, “What is this character capable of doing?”
- Connect the hard clues.
Twist story threads into knots that tie each subplot to the main plot and, together, they progress the story.
- Show an excellent knowledge of people.
Write to move the audience’s emotions, answering the questions raised in the story with humanity and compassion and giving readers a cathartic resolution.
In conclusion, you can use Lang’s story development strategy to:
- Capture and engage readers’ interest.
- Bring characters to life.
- Reuse the strategy to show how essential characters change throughout a series.
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Of the 17 writing tips, which ones do you currently use or plan to use in the future?
*To learn more about Chris Lang, watch the PBS interview and get free copies of his scripts at https://www.chrislang.co.uk/.