By John Jarvis.
The other day I had a conversation with someone who regarded the Jarvis Method as too complex. “Boy, you can’t just sit down and start writing the story,” he moaned. “You’ve got to do all kinds of planning first.” What this person really meant (although he didn’t say so) is that he wished the Method–and the software and books that use it–would offer a “paint-by-the-numbers” approach (an approach that all too many writing software programs take). He would have been happy just to let somehow the story write itself.
Alas, though, all good things require planning and discipline… When I told him that, he turned away in disgust.
Now I happen to know that this person has a father who recently underwent bypass surgery. Would he have been satisfied with a doctor who was instructed simply to operate “somewhere on the right side of the heart”? Of course not. Yet we as writers make the same judgmental mistake about our story-“operation” methods all the time.
I am not saying that we cannot be helped by a simple program in writing (or maybe even by one with a lot of “bells and whistles,” which seem to give some users the reassurance that a program is “state of the art”). What I am saying, though, is that too- simple (or too-“fancy”) programs cannot give would-be writers anything approaching the depth of knowledge they’ll need to practice properly the craft of story-writing. For that, we need the Jarvis Method.
Since there is so much misunderstanding on this subject, I want to take a closer look in this issue of StoryCrafter at the system behind the Jarvis Method. And in the next issue I’m going to present a step-by-step illustration of how it works using the movie Jurassic Park as an example.
I am also instituting a new feature. Any owner of StoryCraft software – or of any other StoryCraft product that uses the Jarvis Method – may ask me any questions regarding the Method — free. Just mail your “Dear John” questions to firstname.lastname@example.org, and I’ll get back to you as soon as possible (often on the same day, sometimes a little later than that). (Note: this is no longer possible due to John’s passing in 2009).
Let’s look first at how the Jarvis Method goes beyond all the other major theories of writing being taught today. There are basically three theories of writing most in vogue today.
1.) The M.I.C.E. Theory breaks stories into milieu, idea, character, or event stories. The concept of this theory is that, while some stories focus on the character, other stories (e.g., milieu, idea, and event stories) work better if not bogged down by the requirements of the main character’s need, backstory, etc. Although the advocates of this theory have put their finger on one of the most critical problems in writing today–making a basic distinction between character and non-character stories–the M.I.C.E. theory stops with that basic assumption and, unfortunately, goes no further. In short, the writer is left hanging as to what to do next, that is, how to tell the story.
2.) The Plot Theory maintains that for every story written there are a certain number of basic plot developments — from 10 to “Plots Unlimited,” depending on the source. This theory says that you can simply select a plot outline and the story will write itself. Yet, that theory all but ignores the fact that a writer needs to build the story’s hero, antagonist, environment, etc. And the theory has no M.I.C.E. step; that is, it makes no distinction between character and other types of stories. Adding insult to injury, once the plot is decided upon, the problem with this theory, as with the M.I.C.E. theory, remains: “What do I do now?”
3.) The Structure Theory is the one developed by Syd Field. Most screenwriters are taught this theory or some variation of it. Basically this theory maintains that the story grows out of its structure: simply give your story a beginning, a middle, and an end and, presto, you have a story! The problem with this theory is that it confuses cause with effect. It is like constructing the framework of a building first and then going to an architect to design the building. A well- developed story is caused by a well-planned story; a good structure does not, in itself, create a good story.
The Jarvis Method resolves the questions and confusions that those other theories leave unresolved while taking the best principles that each has to offer. In effect this method gives the M.I.C.E. and Plot theories structural legs. M.I.C.E. and Plot act as premise parts; and Structure becomes part of the effect, not the cause.
Hence, the Jarvis Method simply divides the story-creation process into three equal parts:
Part I. Category Step and World Creation Steps. The Category Step is the essence of the M.I.C.E. quotient and represents the first decision a writer needs to make. At that step, the writer must decide upon the nature of the story, whether it is to be (in StoryCraft terminology) “Action” or “Theme”. Then the writer must begin creating either an Action- or a Theme-based world for the story, fleshing out the story’s environment and the main characters that will populate that environment.
Part II. Plot Type Step. The Category and World steps dictate the kind of plot that the story must have. The plot developments follow long-established classical patterns.
Part III. Structure Steps. Only after the Category has been determined, the story’s World components sketched, and the plot pattern selected is the writer prepared to begin filling in the actual Structure of the story. In short, parts one and two comprise the Premise Steps, and the third and final part comprises the Structure Steps. Now, because the writer has completed all the Premise Steps, the writer does not have to worry about what so and so Structure Step means, as he or she must with the older systems. No, the writer simply plugs in the plot content for each Structure Step, and the story – finally – begins to “write itself.”
That’s all there is to it; a piece of cake — once you learn the approach. And it’s especially easy when it’s used with the StoryCraft Software program, which provides detailed explanations of Category and World development, numerous classic Plot templates, and automatically established Structure Steps.
— John Jarvis