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By John Jarvis
Writing is one of the most difficult professions there is. Many thinkers have worked at it. One of them may, for example, have the last word to say on character development, but be pretty unenlightening on structure. Another thinker may be quite good at the opposite. This dilemma has forced writers to choose between two very good (but very different) thinkers. The result is normally bad writing.
Since I began my career in screenwriting, I have noticed this deficiency, especially in new writers. Over and over, I have seen scripts rejected not because they had both bad structure and poor character development, but because one or the other was weak, or simply wrong. The reason, of course, is that the writer was not given the sufficient tools, and came unprepared to the producer or director.
And I have long been aware that the prose writer also faces this problem.
So, after years of having studied the classics of fiction as well as popular novels, teleplays, and screenplays, I set about to remedy this educational deficiency. During my spare time (and let’s face it, as a writer, you’ll have some), I began working on a system that has become popularly known as the Jarvis Method and that has been adapted to the computer in the form of the first true “story processor,” the StoryCraft Story-Development Software, StoryCraft New Edition.
My task was to reveal and enunciate the basic elements that virtually every quality piece of fiction ever written contains. I wanted to see whether it was possible to look at the very greatest classics of quality fiction and find a common thread.
With the help of numerous thinkers who have preceded me, I believe I have succeeded in finding that thread – which I call the Five Basic Elements of Fiction, the basis for everything in the Jarvis Method as well as in StoryCraft itself.
First of all, I combined the insights of some of history’s greatest writers and thinkers to create a system of instruction. But I didn’t just create an encyclopedia; I chose the best of the best . Here, for example, is Egri on premise and character development. Here also is where you will find the concepts of another thinker, who astutely observes that character development is not needed for certain kinds of stories (for example, the detective story). Into all this, I incorporate the idea of Plot Types for all stories. Finally there is Joseph Campbell: This man has perhaps done more for story-telling than any other person, and so about 80% of the Jarvis Method relies heavily on his ideas.
“Fine,” you say. “But having this information still makes me have to choose between one or the other.” No, not if only particular parts of a thinker’s insight are used. And it is especially the beauty of the Jarvis Method that makes this possible. So let’s define now roughly what the “Jarvis Method” is. (At this stage, this is all you’ll need to know; as you go through StoryCraft, these ideas will be revealed and explained in detail.)
The Jarvis Method
The Five Elements of Fiction Writing
While almost every other approach to fiction focuses on one particular aspect of a story’s construction – usually either plot, character, or structure – the Jarvis Method not only acknowledges the importance of all three of those aspects, but also it recognizes five distinct, broad elements of every good story ever written. And it treats each element as being equally important to the creation of the story. Indeed, despite what many writing teachers may claim, no great story has ever been written (and, it is probably safe to say, no story ever will be written) without careful regard to all five elements.
The Jarvis Method identifies the “Five Elements of Story Crafting” as (I) Concept, (II) Category, (III) Story Type, (IV) Components (Environment, Main Players, and Helpers), and (V) Structure, or Story Creation. And because of this recognition, teaching the Jarvis Method requires one of the most advanced courses in writing you’ll ever take. (Indeed, that’s why the StoryCraft Software was invented – to make the highly complex Jarvis Method more manageable and practicable for everyday use in writing screenplays and novels.)
…And the Four Stages of Story Crafting
In turn, the Jarvis Method takes the Five Elements found in all great stories and treats them as distinct Stages in the process of writing any quality story.
The order in which those four Stages/elements are carried out (and in which they are presented herein) is roughly from the most abstract to the most concrete of the five elements (Concept and Story Type are treated as one Stage).
Hence, the writer first chooses the Category (an element unique to the Jarvis Method). This Stage represents the most abstract Stage for it determines the essence of the story, the general purpose of the story. Next, the writer establishes the main premise, or Story Concept, and then the Story Type. Those choices establish a somewhat concrete notion of the story’s moral basis – or lack of moral basis – as well as its method – its style – whether it is to be, for instance, a Puzzle story, a Love story, or an Internal Transformation story.
Then, in the Components Stage, the writer begins the more concrete task of taking notes, both mental and written, about the major components of the story – that is, establishing where the story takes place and who populates it.
And finally, the writer actually writes the story, weaving the plot together as dictated by the story’s Category, Concept, Type, and Components and following twelve steps of structure, the Story Creation Steps.
While it is true that many, if not most, of the classics of fiction were not written in the precise fashion suggested by this method – or in that precise order – every one of the stories required those five ingredients. For example, many writers may never have consciously made a decision about what Category their story should be (and, of course, they never used that word, Category, to describe it). Yet, all their stories do fall into a particular Category. And again, many of them did not attempt systematically to decide on their stories’ Components – the Environment, the Hero, the Antagonist, the Antagonist’s Helpers, and so on. Yet those are all the predominant components of their stories. I have merely simplified their writing – and, we hope, your writing – by assigning to it a distinct and logical process that has come to be called the Jarvis Method.