Welcome to my weekly series “Designing from Bones”, using archaeology and the artifacts of human history to find and design stories. Last week we combined The Great Dismal Swamp with a Ming Dynasty tomb to discover a wealth of story ideas. This week we will add in the Irish Watchtowers, Otzi the Iceman and the Aurignacian Lion-Man to see what all five elements can offer us.
It takes many elements to design and create a story world. Where does the story begin? What is the general setting? Where will the story end? Who will adventure through this landscape and carry our story? Who or what will be the ultimate antagonist that our hero must face in order to succeed? Whether you are a plotter or a pantser, at some point, each of these important questions must be answered.
For this example, the Irish Watchtowers will be our starting point, The Great Dismal Swamp our general setting and the Ming Tomb our end location. Otzi will be our hero and the Lion-Man will become the ultimate antagonist. Let’s see what we can find from these elements.
Formed centuries past, The Dismal Swamp is regarded as a threat to the Kingdom. Cursed by the gods and holding unknown terrors that must be kept in, the Kingdom built watchtowers around the swamps borders. Small villages sprang up to support the garrisons. Otzi serves as a hunter supporting the needs of the garrison when one day his closest friend is found lying near the watchtower, husk-like, his soul ripped from him. The symbol of a lion is burnt onto his friends forehead and the watchtower guards whisper of the Palace of the Lost Kings. They refuse to enter the swamp, leaving Otzi to discover who is responsible for the death of his friend (the Lion-Man) and bring them to justice alone.
For a fantasy, add an ancient mangrove that can speak and knows all the secrets of the swamp but only shares them at a price. Next add a swamp dragon that breathes acid mist and guards the item the mangrove requires. Finally we will make the Lion-Man a Liche using a powerful totem to rebuild his magical prowess by stealing the souls of mortals. Now we have three acts, the meeting with the mangrove represents our First Plot Point, claiming its “price” from the swamp dragon our Midpoint, discovering the truth of the Liche our Second Plot Point and avenging Otzi’s dead friend our Climax.
For horror we can shift this to a Cthulhu feel where a cult has fled the Kingdom to the swamp, discovered the tomb and through dark ritual summoned the Lion-Man. The cult controls the Lion-Man with a relic which collects the souls of everyone the Lion-Man slays. How Otzi tracks down the cult, the price he pays to do so, discovers the vile truth and resolves the situation become the four key points of the story.
Humans have spread across the galaxy yet there always remains a frontier to be guarded. Otzi is stationed at a small watch base when a survey ship drifts in from beyond the frontier. The ship doesn’t respond to hails and upon investigation is discovered to be devoid of life save for a lion-man totem that pulsates with an unknown energy. Otzi is ordered to investigate. He must now track down the origin of the totem (First Plot Point), discover the aliens and their world (Midpoint and the Swamp World), unravel the dark truth about the crew of the survey ship and what the aliens intend for the rest of humanity (Second Plot Point) and bring a resolution that rescues humanity (Climax).
For a Thriller we can move the set up to modern times. Satellites detect an unknown energy pulse deep within the Dismal Swamp. Otzi, our investigator, leaves from his FBI base (watchtower) in search of the source of this pulse. The discovery and disruption of Otzi’s normal routine become our First Plot Point. At the Midpoint, Otzi discovers the lost tomb after braving the dangers of the swamp and a mysterious stalker. Inside the tomb, Otzi discovers an alien species (the Lion-Men) that are drawing energy from the center of the Earth in an attempt to stop the planets rotation (Second Plot Point). Now our hero must stop the aliens and save the planet (Climax).
Otzi’s love interest lost her father to the swamp as a young girl and has closed her heart to love. He often watches her climb the old watchtower, standing atop it for hours staring into the swamp in the vain hope that her father will return. Then one day, while Otzi is distracted by work, his lover goes missing. Otzi climbs the watchtower and discovers a lion-man statuette that glows when he aims it into the swamp. Using the statuette Otzi will be able to find the tomb, the secrets it holds and save his lover from the grips of a mythical beastman that has her enthralled. The missing lover serves as our First Plot Point, finding the tomb takes us to our Midpoint, discovering the beastman and its control over the lover our Second Plot Point and rescuing her our Climax.
For YA, we make Otzi and his love interest teenagers. Perhaps the lover was seduced into the swamp to serve as a virgin sacrifice or to act as avatar for the spirit of the Lion-Man. She may already be possessed and it will be up to Otzi to release her.
The possibilities are endless. By answering the five story-building questions and then creating four turning points (First Plot Point, Midpoint, Second Plot Point and Climax) we are able to generate a solid structure for any story. History provides us with the keys all we need to do is unlock the potential it holds.
Next week I will begin introducing a new set of historical elements. I hope you will join me as we discover the power of designing from bones.
Are there any elements you would like to see featured here? How have you used history to discover story?
Looking for more great ideas and information on writing? Check out my previous “Designing from Bones” entries. Want to know how to make blogging and social media a powerful tool? Try Kristen Lamb, author of We Are Not Alone—The Writer’s Guide to Social Media & Are you there blog? It’s me, Writer