Dear Theodosia by Jeff Leyco

I'm obsessed with Hamilton, you guys. This is the most obsessed I've been with music in a long while--the last time I got this into music was with The Decemberists' The Hazards of Love, which is totally worth a listen (or several hundred).

I haven't even seen Lin-Manuel Miranda's musical, largely because getting tickets is nigh-impossible unless you're incredibly lucky and win the lottery, or you're made out of money. But I've had the musical on repeat for a long while now, and I've begun to let my curiosities get the best of me.

Miranda succeeds in telling a mostly factual version of Alexander Hamilton's life, with some creative liberties taken here and there. Perhaps the most notable one I can think of is the fact that Philip died in a duel in 1801 ... after the election of 1800 in which Hamilton supported Jefferson over Burr. But as all good storytellers will tell you: never let the truth get in the way of a good story.

But Hamilton was surrounded by many, many incredible characters with stories all their own. I've been drawn to reading up on the lives of other people in the story: the Marquis de Lafayette, Aaron Burr, HERCULES MULLIGAN!, and others who haven't been quite so prominent in our history books. And I think I'm going to write up some interesting tidbits I find about a lot of them in the near future.

For now, I've been particularly interested in Aaron Burr's daughter, Theodosia, subject of the wonderful penultimate Act I song, "Dear Theodosia." Burr sings of his love for his daughter. Throughout the musical, other characters question him:

If you stand for nothing, Burr, what will you fall for?

The answer, ultimately, is his daughter:

I had only one thought before the slaughter

This man will not make an orphan of my daughter

For such an important symbol in Burr's life, Theodosia doesn't get too much play in the musical itself, and isn't even mentioned in the epilogue song, "Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?" It left me curious: just who was Theodosia, and whatever did happen to her after the story of Hamilton ended?

You will come of age with our young nation ...

Theodosia Burr Alston

Theodosia Burr (1783-1813) was the first-born daughter of Aaron Burr and Theodosia Bartow. Theodosia Bartow had previously been married to one James Marcus Prevost ...

Burr: She's married to a British officer.

Hamilton: Oh shit.

However, Prevost died in 1781, leaving Bartow with five children. She soon married Burr, and would later die of stomach cancer in 1794. They had four children together, but only one survived to adulthood: Theodosia, who had been named after her mother.

Theodosia, nicknamed Theo, grew up under the very unique guidance of her father:

For Aaron Burr, providing his little girl with an extraordinary education was a lifelong obsession. But Burr's desire to rear a superior woman-child went far beyond mere education. By the time she could walk, Burr had envisioned an incredible goal for her and crafted a master plan to achieve it. Every moment of her day was directed by her father to shape Theodosia into something new, radical, and monumental. He was not interested in turning out just a smart, pretty girl; a father's pride; or a husband's delight. Burr was no petty theorist. He was a passionate, egotistical visionary on scale that made the gods cringe. With his vision and his daughter's talent, Burr intended to push the envelope of mortal achievement to its absolute limit. Burr's goal was to sculpt Theodosia into a model for the woman of the future: a female Aaron Burr.

She studied arithmetic, music, and dancing, and could speak fluent French, Latin, and German, and could read Greek by 12. At 14, she was serving as hostess in Burr's country estate in present-day Greenwich Village. After her mother died, she became her father's closest confidante.

In 1801, she married Joseph Alston, an heir to a Southern rice-planting fortune, and moved south to Georgetown, South Carolina.

Things more or less went downhill from there.

I'll make a million mistakes ...

In 1802, Theo gave birth to a son, Aaron Burr Alston, but complications with the pregnancy untreatable at the time left her infertile with frequent bouts of illness. By all accounts, however, the young Aaron was perfectly healthy and Theo and Joseph loved him very much.

1804 marked the year of the famous Hamilton-Burr duel, in which, spoiler alert, Hamilton got blown away. Burr was charged with murder but later acquitted, but his political reputation was ruined. In 1806, Burr traveled west to Ohio and Theo accompanied him, where things got ... pretty weird:

There Aaron Burr met Irishman Harman Blennerhassett, and they were later joined by General James Wilkinson. These men were rumored to be planning to encourage Louisiana and other western states to secede from the Union and form a separate empire, with Burr as emperor and Theodosia as empress.

It became known as the Burr Conspiracy. Eventually, President Thomas Jefferson (yep, that guy) heard about the plan and Burr was charged with treason. He would later be acquitted, once again, but he nonetheless voluntarily exiled himself from the United States while Theodosia returned to South Carolina.

I'll make the world safe and sound for you ...

Aaron Burr Alston, Theo and Joseph's son, died of malaria in 1812. This same year, Burr returned from his self-imposed exile in Europe and settled in New York City to resume practicing law (albeit under the name "Edwards", to avoid creditors and/or awkward conversations). Not to mention, the War of 1812 had also broken out and the U.S. was once again fighting with England, among others.

It was an interesting time to be alive.

Burr convinced Theo to sail up from South Carolina to see him in New York. Joseph was reluctant to let Theo take the trip, especially with the British Navy right off the American shore. He'd also recently been elected governor of South Carolina and wouldn't be able to take the trip with her. Nonetheless, through his contacts, he secured safe passage for Theo aboard the ship Patriot, and on December 31, 1812 she set sail for New York.

The journey should have only taken a few days, but she never arrived. The ship came across the British navy on January 2 and, thanks a letter written by Joseph, was allowed to pass. It was the last time anyone saw the ship--neither Theodosia nor anyone on the crew was seen again.

Theodosia's disappearance remains a mystery today. One popular theory is that the ship was waylaid by pirates along the way. A more plausible story is that the ship fell victim to a powerful storm after passing the British fleet. Aaron Burr sent search parties out to find his daughter but recalled them after weeks of finding nothing.

Aaron Burr, himself, lived until 1836.

Swing Appeal - Kelly Arsenault at Music City Shuffle by Jeff Leyco

Starting a new vintage and vintage-inspired fashion photography project. Kelly Arsenault was teaching at Music City Shuffle in Nashville, TN. When Mimi and I saw her on the dance floor in this dress, Mimi's immediate reaction was, "That dress is amazing." 

 Edit (11/24)  :  I should also include stuff like where folks got their clothes and some such. Again, this is new. Kelly said she bought this dress at a vintage shop in Berlin! 

Explorations - Yuyu Yang Sculpture by Jeff Leyco

Yuyu Yang (1926-1997) was a Taiwanese sculptor interested in exploring the differences between "eastern" and "western" aesthetics through his art. His sculptures can be found around the world, including this one in New York City at the intersection of Water St. and Pine St. 

I was very interested in seeing how the reflections played with street life. The photos below are from two separate trips, both taken with a Fujifilm X100S.

reflection-2.jpg

Misadventures in DJing (Part 1) by Jeff Leyco

Oh crap. 

It's several minutes past 8 at the Balboa Experiment and I should be two or three songs into my DJ set already. Except nothing's playing. There's no music at all. I'm plugged into the mixer and Djay shows the song is playing with a spinning digital turntable but there's only silence. Kyle Smith, head DJ and INTERNATIONAL MUSIC CHAMPION, leans over my shoulder as I press every button I possibly can, trying to get the damn thing to work. 

This is my second time DJing for a crowd.

Okay, second real time. 

I haven't even started playing music yet and I'm already failing. 

At this point, I'm not even looking up. I don't know how many people are waiting to get on the floor to start dancing. I don't know how many of them are watching me panic. I reconfigure the audio, push a couple buttons. Am I actually pre-cueing instead of playing live? I don't even know what happens, but something finally starts playing out of the speakers. I still don't know what went wrong. The song's already halfway over.

Easy fix, at least. I press a button and it goes back the beginning. I breathe a sigh of relief and look up. 

No one's interested in dancing anyway.

Give 'em what they want.

I DJed a little bit for my college swing club, and by DJing, I mean I made a playlist before coming to the dance and then just pressed play. It cycled through my collection of the "40 best big band and swing songs!" as well as a few singles from Sinatra, Bobby Darin, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, and the Brian Setzer Orchestra. Sure, those bands carry a certain stigma to purist ears, but at the time, damn I loved "Beyond the Sea" way more than I should probably admit.

But those were my college days. I didn't actually DJ again for a crowd until very recently at Yehoodi.com's Frim Fram Jam for their DJ debut night. With an hour-long set for a pretty casual crowd, if you play the hits, you'll more or less get away with being enjoyable, if not predictable. A little bit of Chick, a little bit of Fats, a whole lotta Benny and Count Basie will do you good.

More on that experience in a later post. I want to talk about flailing around and utterly failing.

If you play it, they might not dance.

Dance heaven on earth.

Dance heaven on earth.

The Experiment, I'm on record saying, is the best dance-related event I've gone to. For a week, you're put into a beautiful house on the Outer Banks of North Carolina with a cohort of like-minded dancers and professionals and mentors all interested in helping everyone push their limits. And then there's all the antics.

Some folks offer extracurricular activities. Kyle Smith, head DJ for our week, offered DJ workshops and "mixerships," where he'd sit beside you during a DJ set and be the Yoda to your Luke, if you were a newbie DJ. 

I am a newbie DJ.

A few days later, I'm sitting down for a half-hour DJ set with Kyle. After all the flailing to just get the music going, no one's dancing anyway. Not a single person even seems interested in dancing.

I can think of a few reasons for this. It's the beginning of the night and everyone's tired from the classes earlier. There's a lot of conversations going on, and people are still deep into socializing. Some are playing games elsewhere in the house. 

Kyle sits back and crosses his arms. I'm playing a Benny Goodman small combo song with a lot of Charlie Christian noodling in it. Kyle asks, "Why this song?"

"Um. It's the beginning of the night and I dont think people are gonna dance and I don't want to play something too hot."

"Why don't you want to play something too hot?"

"Because I think I need to warm the floor up a little first?"

Kyle shrugs.

The song ends. No one's on the floor.

I try again, a similar song to the one before. More small combo, very laid back. 

"Why this song?" Kyle asks again.

"Um. I'm trying to entice people onto the floor."

"And you think this song will do it?"

"I hope so. It's not too fast and it's still pretty laid back."

"So people want to dance laid back right now?"

I don't know.

The song ends. I start another one. The same question. Another similar answer. I'm trying to get people onto the floor with cool music that's arguably danceable in balboa. It goes on for half my set. The same response each time. No one's dancing.

"Okay, fine," I say. I queue up another song. Little John's Special. It's hot, it's fast, and it's loud. 

"Why this song?"

"Because it's got a lot of energy in it and if no one's responding to the cool stuff, maybe they'll respond to the hot stuff?" 

"Don't you think this is a very abrupt jump from what you've just been playing?"

Crap.

"Maybe." I reconsider that answer. "Yeah."

The song ends again. And no one's dancing.

The best song you've got.

I'm having a nightmare and I'm wide awake. I'm playing music for dancers who really like dancing, and there's not a single foot on the floor. I like to think that I have okay taste in music, but the sheer disinterest in what I'm playing is uncomfortable.

I switch over to a Lionel Hampton song.

"Why this song?" Kyle asks again.

"Because it flows a lot better from the last song I played. It brings the energy down but it's still got a little bit of punch to it. No one's on the floor, so I want to play something I know people enjoy dancing to."

"That's a better answer than you've given all night."

And there's one couple finally dancing.

Something Kyle says sticks with me while we talk: "Play the best song that you possibly can for the moment that you're in." It seems awfully general, but that's the beauty of it. The situation is constantly changing, and you need to be paying attention to it. 

Sometimes it's going to work, and sometimes it really isn't.

After the fact, I can think about the beginning of the night and how I could've done it differently. Maybe if I started off with well-known, well-liked danceable songs at the start, it would've drawn more people in. Maybe if I went with a straight up Benny Goodman song with his big band rather than one of his small combos, more people would've been interested. Maybe it would be dancing music rather than just background music. 

By the end of my half hour, I'd succeeded in getting a grand total of 3 couples on the floor, and not all at the same time. Disappointing, and a little ego-deflating. Again, maybe it's because everyone else was happily distracted with something else. Or maybe my song choices really just sucked that much.

Kyle asked me if I wanted to do it again and I said, "Yes. Definitely." I wasn't going to let one bad set be the thing that defined the rest of my experience as a DJ.

Play the best song you possibly can in the moment that you're in. Okay.

Two nights later, I'm DJing one of the later sets. This time I've got another half-hour set and damn if I'm going to blow it. 

The floor's already warm, and everyone's been dancing for hours. We're all tired, and a lot of dancers have been sitting out for a lot of songs in a row. Some are retiring for the night.

But I want to keep everyone on the floor.

Another snafu. My music's not playing, but I get it under control a lot quicker. I've already got the song I want to play ready to go.

The brass section flares. The drums go thump. I'm playing "Carioca." 

And hey! People are dancing.

Beginners are the best. by Jeff Leyco

Let the swing geekery begin.

I've been teaching the past several weeks over at Brooklyn Swings. Even though I've been teaching pretty regularly for the past couple years now, it's been a little while since I've been able to teach a really big class of beginners, fresh to the whole dancing experience, ready to embark on this crazy little thing we call Lindy hop.

If it isn't abundantly clear already to everyone who knows me: I geek out. Hardcore. And when there's people around me who are excited about the same things I'm excited for, a torrential downpour of awesome ensues.

Some things I wish I knew as a beginner.

I still remember sitting in my dorm room in sophomore year, typing "Hellzapoppin" into the YouTube search bar, wondering if that was actually how you spelled it, and watching that entire clip for the first time. Same thing for "Buck Privates" and watching Jewel's magnificent swivels. This was already months after I'd started learning how to do East Coast Swing (sigh, yes). No one had told me about these clips before. I didn't even know who Frankie Manning was.

Let me repeat that. As a beginning swing dancer, I had no idea who Frankie Manning was.

Yeah. This guy.

No clue who he was. At all.

No clue who he was. At all.

Somewhere, someone failed. (Probably me. I'm terrible at listening to other people sometimes).

As a teacher, I like to really emphasize the important things new dancers should know about that aren't about dancing technique itself. Don't get me wrong—you take a lesson from me, you're going to get a lot of technique drilled in. But the history of it all is so important—Whitey's Lindy Hoppers, the movies, the evolution of the dance from Charleston to Lindy hop, the bandleaders, and all that. 

Partly, it's because these are things that I wish I knew about when I was just starting to dance. When I was a beginner, I figured East Coast Swing was its own thing and that the people who did Lindy hop were strange magical beings who were way more coordinated than I would ever be. Today, I'm a little bit more coordinated than before but probably not magical. Strange, though. Definitely strange.

I didn't know how deep that history ran. I never really got an appreciation for it until years and years later, when I started delving deeper into that stuff myself (blogs like Swungover and Wandering & Pondering were major factors in that, plus all the random folks who assembled classic clips on YouTube).

Getting to teach beginners now, though, my love of the dance and its history is something I want to spread. It's the same thing with how I'll geek out about movies and TV shows and comic books to anyone who'll lend an ear to listen. Or how obsessive I get about certain musicians (Edmond Hall is the best you guys). Geeking out about swing and everything about it is something I never thought I'd get to do as a job, however part-time it may be. And man I'm happy I get to do that now.

You're one of today's lucky 10,000.

A little while ago, after one of my beginner lessons, several follows came up to me and asked about "that crazy side-to-side swivel-y thing that good follows do."

"Um. You mean swivels?"

"Yes!"

I'm hardly qualified to teach proper swivels myself (though, seriously, my man-swivels are ... something). But I could talk to them about how so many follows develop their own signature ways to put swivels in their swing outs. The conversation turned to older clips and I mentioned Jewel McGowan.

"Who's that?" 

Congratulations. You're one of today's lucky 10,000.

Jewel McGowan and Jimmy Stewart, from Pot o' Gold (1941). You know, I should probably watch this movie.

Jewel McGowan and Jimmy Stewart, from Pot o' Gold (1941). You know, I should probably watch this movie.

I pulled up YouTube on my phone and showed that clip from Buck Privates. Sadly, YouTube won't let me embed it, but if you're reading this far, you probably know exactly what I'm talking about anyway.

There's something amazing about seeing people experience that clip for the first time. Everyone's wide open eyes, the exclamations of "holy crap" when Jewel launches into her swivels. I imagine it's empowering for follows, a clip that shows that you're not a slave to whatever the lead's doing but rather that you can put your own stamp on the dance and own it.

I'm geeking out again. But that's the point.

Beginners are the best. They're the ones beginning this journey. They get to experience all these amazing things for the first time. They get to struggle and triumph through their first swing outs. They get to learn the Shim Sham. They get to watch the old clips of Frankie Manning, of Dean and Jewel and Al and Leon and Norma and Shorty George. They get to see the new clips of Skye and Frida and Jeremy and Laura and Kevin and Jo and Kevin's badass mustache. 

A lot of the time, I wish I could experience all that for the first time over again. I'll settle for being a helpful guide on their journey.

Projects by Jeff Leyco

I have been busy.

I don't say that to sound pretentious, or ungrateful. I'm happy for the work, much of it self-imposed.

Currently, I'm at work on another short story for Charlie Brown (yes, that's his name). Last year, he edited together an anthology of urban fantasy noir stories set in Los Angeles, which ended up including my first published short story. I loved every moment of working on that one, especially since I got to combine a lot of my favorite things together: jazz music, noir, and fantasy.

This year, I'm at work on another story for his new anthology, this time set in New Orleans. It's a tricky subject. I've been to New Orleans once--count it, only once. But I still like to refer to that city as my mistress (though that may be the domain of Montreal now).  

New Orleans is a city that I've always found fascinating, especially in the post-Katrina modern day. Simultaneously, it's a city of great music, great food, and an undercurrent of political dissatisfaction and anger. It's a spirit that I'm trying to capture with my new story, though that'll probably become more and more apparent as I edit it. Draft Zero is coming along very, very slowly (no thanks in part to the Microsoft Word app on my iPad). But hey, no one gets to read Draft Zero but me anyway, right?

On the other side, I'm back in the photography game. I'm exploring the idea of portraiture more and more now, especially now that I'm armed with a Fujifilm X100S. It's a 23mm lens (crop sensor, 35mm equivalent), which makes it fantastic for street and documentary photography. For portraits, there is a bit of wide angle distortion that plays in, but the images look so great coming out of the camera--even the JPEGs--that I'm willing to forgive it for any minor flaw. 

As such, I've started a new photo project--Dancers in their Unnatural Environment, in which I'll be photographing Lindy hoppers dressed for dancing while they're not actually dancing. The first couple shots I've captured are run-of-the-mill portraits--I wouldn't consider them art per se, but I'm getting more ideas. 

Selena on the street, en route to the Vintage Subway Ride.

Selena on the street, en route to the Vintage Subway Ride.

As a dancer, I know there are lots of places where we wait between dancing and getting dressed. At events, there's the time spent in the hotel rooms getting ready, or waiting for others to get ready (sigh). At your local scene, there's the drive over, or the hop on the train. There's even bumping randomly into people on the street on their way to a dance you weren't even planning on going to. 

Gotta have the camera to be ready for everything. f/8 and be there. Unless you're indoors and the lighting's bad. So, f/4 and ISO 6400 and ... try to be there, I guess. 

NaNo Prep for Pantsers by Jeff Leyco

November 1 is NaNoWriMo day! GET READY.

As I wrote about earlier, writers typically fall somewhere closer to one side of the Pantser-Plotter spectrum. I generally fall on the side of plotting, but there have been a lot of times when I've gotten by with pantsing instead. 

Almost time.

Almost time.

What the hell is pantsing anyway? 

* Note: I was going to include a picture of pantsing here but man are those NSFW.

Pantsing is really just a fun way of saying that you're writing by the seat of your pants. There's no real guide to follow, no structured outline you're trying to keep to. Rather, the story goes wherever the story wants to go.  

For a lot if writers, this is maddeningly difficult to do. Especially the Middle. The dreaded, dreaded Middle.  

To be fair, everyone hates the Middle anyway.  

There's really not that much to say.  

By its very nature, writing by the seat of your pants can be a chaotic endeavor. An incredibly fun one, but chaotic nonetheless. There's not much to say about how to do it except to do it. 

The real issue, however, is where things slow down. 

While it's fun to bring stories to life with your beginnings, then being them to their dramatic conclusions, the Middle is where so much writing goes to the wayside. Writers lose sight of where their story is heading, go down unnecessary subplots, introduce superfluous characters. Situations like these are where it helps to have an outline, or at least some sort of semblance of structure in order to guide where the story goes.  

Here's a few ways to try to navigate around that, when you don't have any idea where else to go.

Hamlet's Hit Points.

Not just for game masters.

Not just for game masters.

Robin D. Laws is a prominent tabletop game designer, responsible for Mutant City Blues, one of the most fascinating combinations of the superhero and procedural crime drama genres. He also wrote Hamlet's Hit Points, intended to be a guide for game masters, but with interesting insights that could easily apply to writing as well.

Hamlet's Hit Points approaches the topic of stories by examining critical story beats. He analyzes three popular pieces of culture: Hamlet (duh), Casablanca, and Dr. No. Focusing on these, Laws creates beat maps detailing whether the action is rising, falling, or remaining neutral (among other things.

One of the most important takeaways in creating an effective story is not to let two of the same kind of beat stand next to each other. A story constantly rising in tension creates only action that becomes monotonous. A story constantly falling in tension has no stakes. A story that neither rises nor falls in tension is boring.

If you're pantsing your story, try to keep this idea in mind. That way, you can more effectively balance your story's progression, even if you don't know where it's going next. At least you'll know not to let the tension and conflict you're building up fade away too quickly. 

Gnome Stew has a far more in-depth look at Hamlet's Hit Points, perhaps the closest you can get to understanding the concept without actually purchasing the book. You should buy the book anyway, though

Write by emotion tags.

Similar to Hamlet's Hit Points, another way to keep your momentum going if you're pantsing your way through a story is to write by emotion tags. This was discussed by James Dashner, author of the Maze Runner, in a recent episode of Writing Excuses (again, one of the podcasts in my writing podcast pantheon). 

Writing by emotion tags means that you tag a specific emotion to each scene you write. The most important rule is that you do not put two chapters with the same emotional tag next to each other--it's easy to see that back-to-back scenes of elation can get annoying, and back-to-back scenes of sadness can get mopey and melodramatic. 

Again, while pantsing, if you don't know exactly what the next scene is supposed to be, at least you know not to focus on someone crying if another person was crying in the last scene. 

Seriously, what's up with all the crying?

An experiment.  

I typically write by outline, but even then I leave some things loose in between to allow my characters to pursue pathways that I don't expect. It's a very similar structure to what I do when prepping for tabletop RPG sessions.  

Shut your pie hole, yes, I'm that nerdy.  

I'm currently experimenting with an outline that includes five plot points/motifs that are not necessarily tied to scenes but I feel are important to explore. While making my outline and arriving at the tricksy middle, I continually referred to these five motifs to give inspiration on where to go and what to do.  

It's an experiment. Maybe it'll work. When you need something to get your butt in gear for NaNo, it often pays off to try out new approaches.

NaNo Prep for Plotters by Jeff Leyco

NaNoWriMo is just around the corner. Are you as excited as I am? Probably not. I'm pretty excited.

Many writers fall within the Pantser-Plotter spectrum--Plotters outline their stories and for the most part try to stick to those outlines, while Pantsers typically fly by the seat of their pants. A lot of us end up somewhere in-between. I'm more of a Plotter myself, but I often leave a little bit in between to let my imagination run wild. 

It works out sometimes!

There's no one way to do it.

If you've ever taken an English course, chances are you've come across ideas on story structure before. And you probably know that there's no one way of doing it. 

Most story structures have very similar elements. Stories, after all, have a beginning, middle, and end. A story without one of those is ... well, frustrating. You could get away with just saying, "Cool story, bro" about those.

Cool story, bro.

Cool story, bro.

That being said, many of these structures have their uses when thinking about how to plot out your story. What follows is a collection of some of my favorites. Given that I'm not an English professor or anything resembling that, I won't comment in-depth about these, but I'll provide enough basics to give a sense of how these things work.

The five-act structure.

There's the classic five-act structure:

  1. Exposition
  2. Rising Action
  3. Climax
  4. Falling Action
  5. Resolution

In brief, the story starts with the exposition--who your characters are, where the story takes place, and what the important things at stake are. Tension rises until it reaches the point of climax (oooh, sexy), then the tension falls to the point of resolution.

This is a classic structure, though it's often compressed into three or four acts instead. Variations on a theme. Frequently, this is reserved for screenwriting and plays, but it also helps when thinking about novels.

Don't make the assumption that each of these acts are of equal length, however--the falling action and resolution can occur very quickly. Some stories jump straight to it. For instance, many of Jim Butcher's wonderful Dresden Files books tie up falling action and resolution in a single chapter, the last chapter in a book climaxing with a multi-chapter confrontational battle.

Example: Shakespeare's Macbeth

The Hero's Journey

Joseph Campbell theorized the monomyth, the Hero's Journey that seems to be present in stories across many different cultures:

  1. The Ordinary World
  2. The Call to Action
  3. Refusal of the Call
  4. Meeting with the Mentor
  5. Crossing the Threshold
  6. Tests, Allies, and Enemies
  7. Approach
  8. The Ordeal
  9. The Reward
  10. The Road Back
  11. The Resurrection
  12. Return with the Elixir

You can indeed see this structure almost everywhere. With the recent explosion of superhero movies, it's easy to see this play out almost without even trying. Luke's journey through Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope is basically the hero's journey exemplified.

Example: Star Wars

The 7-point story structure.

Dan Wells, a host of Writing Excuses (which is in my pantheon of writing podcasts), has an interesting and modern take on story writing. The 7-point story structure is actually the tool that I use most in outlining my own works. This breaks down to:

  1. The Hook
  2. Plot Turn 1
  3. Pinch 1
  4. Midpoint
  5. Pinch 2
  6. Plot Turn 2
  7. Resolution

I recommend watching the entire talk he gave on this, available for your viewing pleasure on YouTube! 

More than any other story structures, Dan's gets straight to the point of the story. The hook is meant to act as the inciting incident, the thing that gives your story its reason for being. It's exactly where the trouble begins, and it's supposed to hook the reader in for the rest of the story.

The pinches also indicate the points where things get worse for your protagonists, the points at which their mettles will truly be tested. Their fortunes, really, should be getting worse and worse until the end of Plot Turn 2, the point at which they know they can (or can't!) defeat their antagonists, leading to the resolution.

Example: The Tell-Tale Heart, as examined by the Writing Excuses crew

The story circle.

This is a more recent entry on my radar of story structuring. Developed by Dan Harmon (yes, of Community fame/infamy), the story circle structure seems to riff off of all the above-mentioned structures:

via Wired

via Wired

  1. A character is in a zone of comfort
  2. But they want something
  3. They enter an unfamiliar situation
  4. Adapt to it
  5. Get what they wanted
  6. Pay a heavy price
  7. Then return to their familiar situation
  8. Having changed

There's a lot of interesting symmetry to the structure, too, reflecting Campbell's structure. Points 1 and 5 are interesting points of conflict--if point 1 is who the character is at the beginning, point 5 is where their sense of self comes into serious conflict. On a similar note, point 3 is where they go from the known to the unknown, and across it at point 7 is where they return from the unknown to the known.

The story circle is one of the most character-centric outlines you could go by. I suppose there's a reason Dan Harmon focuses so much on this as a TV screenwriter.

Example: Any episode of Community

The problem with outlines.

Outlines are fantastic for giving your story direction, but it can also be restricting. It's happened too many times to me--I've outlined where I want my story to go, but when I start putting words to paper (or screen), the characters seem to want to go off in their own direction and do their own thing. Sometimes I let them do that, and it completely derails everything else I had planned.

Outlines work well when you really need your story to be defined. It's especially helpful with genre fiction. Many markets, from scifi to fantasy to romance to mystery, often rely on very clear story structures in place, structures that define the particular genre you're working within. 

To get the most of your outlines, you have to understand that things are malleable. Where you think the story will be going one day could very well change the next. Outlines, for writers, should serve as a guide, to help you figure out where your story is going.

It's entirely possible to plot out an entire story before committing prose to paper, but it can be difficult.

Often, the plan doesn't survive contact with characters.

Next up: NaNo Prep for Pantsers

Welcome! by Jeff Leyco

Obligatory first blog entry here. I aspire to blog regularly, so check back often (subscribe to the RSS feed why don't you?). 

Content will typically be writing- and dance-related, but I'll also delve into some topics like urbanism and random geekery.

Expect posts about:

  • Stories that I'm currently working on - NaNoWriMo 2014 is coming up and I'll very likely be participating (and winning)
  • Dancers that currently inspire me, routines that knock my socks off, and videos that leave me awestruck
  • Interesting topics in urbanism, especially as it relates to New York City, its past, present, and future
  • Lots and lots of posts about tabletop games, TV shows, movies, and memes. Hey, it's my blog, I'll do what I want.

It's going to be interesting for a little bit while i figure out tone and post length. So hey! Stick around, it's gonna be fun.