“Rapid Story Development” with Author and Screenwriter Jeff Lyons

Jenna Avery interviews author-writer Jeff Lyons about his Rapid Story Development using the Enneagram.
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Jenna Avery is a sci-fi screenwriter, writing coach, and the founder of Called to Write where she helps writers (and screenwriters!) write every day, year round. Follow her on Twitter @JennaAvery and on Instagram. [Full bio]

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Anatomy of a Premise Line: Q&A with Jeff Lyons | Script Magazine

As a screenwriter and storyteller, I’ve long been interested in Jeff Lyons’s work in “rapid story development” using the Enneagram. We connected eons ago on Twitter around our mutual love of the Enneagram, and when he told me about how he uses it to develop stories, I was so excited about it that we co-hosted an online webinar series and an in-person workshop in California so we could share it with other writers.

Needless to say, I’ve been eagerly awaiting (and urging him to write) this book on using the Enneagram to rapidly develop stories. Now that Rapid Story Development: How to Use the Enneagram-Story Connection to Become a Master Storyteller (Oct 2019 release, Focal Press) is almost here, I’m thrilled to have the chance to delve deeper into my understanding of this work and Jeff’s process in writing and developing it.

Here’s our conversation so you can check it out too...

Jeff, thanks so much for being here! Let’s jump right in. Tell us, how did you come to write this book?

I came to write this book through no plan of my own. It felt forced on me by circumstance, truth be told. After many years working with story and structure and many years working the Enneagram, one day, out of “nowhere,” I was hit upside the head with the notion that the Enneagram could be a different way into telling a story, not just into writing characters, which is how most writers tend to use it.

This idea ate away at me, under the surface for a long time, until I was finallyforced to look more deeply at it just to relieve the pressure and the nagging of the idea, which wouldn’t leave me alone.

I then realized this idea was not leading me to write another creative writing book on character development (which I really didn’t want to do) but rather, I was jumping down a new rabbit hole into previously unexplored story territory.

That’s when I got really excited, because it's not often that new ideas emerge from the field of storytelling and story development. Most often, the “new big thing” is usually just warmed over by somebody else with proprietary language slapped on it to give the gloss of originality.

But, in this case, the Enneagram as a story-development tool felt legitimately original and new.

As it turned out, that feeling never went away and only deepened as the writing of the book evolved. It’s been a never-ending ride of new connections, new ideas, and new concepts ever since. That’s what I mean by being “forced.” I didn’t set out to do this, it grabbed me by the throat and wouldn’t let go until I surrendered.

How is this is a book about storytelling and not just another book about writing?

Writing and storytelling are in fact, two completely different things. They draw on different talents and different crafts.

Stories can be danced, painted, mimed, spoken, etc. You don’t need to be anywhere near a piece of paper and a pen to tell a story.

Writing is about rhetoric, rules of grammar, the art of punctuation, and the expressing of thoughts, feelings, and ideas through written word and the musicality of language.

Storytelling is about the human condition. Stories are what we use to teach ourselves what it means to be human. Stories, historically, precede writing. Stories need storytellers, they don’t need writers. But writers are certainly welcome.

When it comes to storytelling most writers are pretty good with the writing function, but weak with the story function. Not bad or wrong on their part; story development is just not something most writers think about. We’re taught, as writers, to “just write” and stories will write themselves because that’s how creativity works. But no, that’s not how it works.

And that’s why I wrote this book, to shore up the storytelling craft for the vast majority of writers out there who might find their own skill set lacking.

So, why the Enneagram? What is the connection between it and story?
Isn’t the Enneagram mainly just a character development tool?

To answer this question required me to write an entire book, which I promise not to do here, suffice to say the connection is profound and incredibly natural.

The Sci-Fi Circuit: The Enneagram of Sci-Fi

" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Enneagram (just Google the term and you’ll see how huge this topic is) is the most influential model available today that describes nine common personality styles of human thought, feeling, and action.

Combined with story structure best practices, the two create what I call the “Enneagram-Story Connection,” a powerful methodology that not only delivers characters that ring true, but also stories that work.

The Enneagram nails character creation yes, but it also points your nose to specific story structure milestones in any story, like the best opponent structure, the moral flaw of the protagonist, the best allies/supporting characters, the best natural low point in the story, and more.

Essentially, every major story structure milestone you need in your story is informed by the Enneagram. How? Because character is plot and plot is character.

At the most fundamental level of any story, what happens on the page (plot) is driven by character (motivation) — and the Enneagram is the best model available today for understanding human motivation, which naturally leads to an innate, character-driven, organic story structure.

How does Rapid Story Development help screenwriters tell stories that work? 

It’s by establishing a direct relationship between character action on the page and overall story action that makes stories work at the deepest levels.

Here’s an example... Let’s say we have a character who is an Enneagram type “Three” personality style. Threes suffer from the moral flaw of not feeling like they matter or have any value as a human being, only value in what they do in the world. This motivates all their behavior. A Three sees people as having no value, and so sees themselves as without value, and tend to feel self-loathing and self-pity as a result. This drives the Three to “perform” life, and to try to demonstrate their value and worth to others at all costs.

Thanks to the Enneagram, we have lifted the hood and can see the character’s inner machinery. The character isn’t just randomly hurting others, but acting out their own lack of moral blind spot.

Now in turn, we can see how each of the story plot points might play out. In our example, our character might act badly in the world by preying on other people for money because he or she believes they have no value other than what can be squeezed out of them. Our character’s story low point might look like being preyed upon for money themselves, much as they prey on others. And our character’s big self-revelation must ultimately revolve around seeing that he or she does in fact have value and human dignity, and in fact, matter in the world, just like the people around them.

The Enneagram points to all these key story structure elements (and character windows), and helps screenwriters cut to the chase, avoid superficial development, and get to the emotional depth lurking under the surface of any real story.

What is the Rapid Story Development method?

When you teach something as complex and nuanced as the Enneagram-Story Connection, you have to take a structured approach. Although “seven step systems” and their ilk can be annoyingly driven by marketing-speak, a method does have to get broken down into pieces, and steps, and components so you can transfer knowledge. So, bear with my seven-step approach.

The beauty of this is that once you know the information and understand the flow of how it works, you can pick and choose what you want to keep and what you want to skip. I don’t give a hoot if you follow “Jeff Lyons’s seven-step process” or not. But I do care mightily that you understand the bloody information.

The Rapid Story Development methodology is straightforward:

  1. Build the Enneagram Foundation of the Moral Component
  2. Define the Protagonist’s Enneagram Style
  3. Define the Protagonist’s Enneagram Evolution and De-Evolution Styles
  4. Identify the Common and Uncommon Pinches, Crunches, Blind Spots, and Distortion Filters
  5. Define the Opposition
  6. Build the Enneagram Components of the Story Middle
  7. Develop the Premise Line

All of these steps rely on classic story structure best practices and Enneagram patterns of behavior, and as such, respond to the most challenging parts of the development process, thus setting you up for success rather than struggle and failure.

The idea behind them is that by the time you get to the point where you are ready to write pages, you will have a solid foundation for your characters and story structure so that you are less likely to wander off into the story woods. (It’s still going to suck … but less than if you winged it.)

How quickly does the Rapid Story Development process work? What makes it "rapid"? 

“Rapid” here doesn’t mean fast in terms of some ticking clock.

It means you will reduce the time you spend developing most of the core elements of your story.

Story development is a reductionist process; meaning as you write, your creative options become fewer.

And this is a good thing.

You can’t write and always be juggling unlimited options, if you do you will never get anything done. You have to make creative choices. Every time you make a choice to do A instead of B, you have eliminated countless other options from ever happening.

The key is to reduce your options in the smartest way possible so that you are making the best story decisions. Knowing the Enneagram and knowing story structure positions you to do exactly that.

How familiar does a writer have to be with the Enneagram to use this method? 

I talk about this in the first part of the book. You do not have to become an Enneagram expert to use the Enneagram, any more than you have to become a story guru to use story structure.

There will be a learning curve, certainly, but it’s manageable and fun to do so. The entire first part of the book arms you with the basics that you will need, you really don’t need any more than what is covered in Part I. You can go deeper if you want, but you don’t have to in order to be functional with the process.

This is a tool, not some religion or lifestyle you have to adopt in order to use it. It’s a tool. Take what works for you and discard what doesn’t. As I always say, “Listen to everyone, try everything, follow no one. You are your own guru.”

What was the most surprising thing you discovered while writing this book?

“Chapter 12: The Middle—Moving the Story Forward.” I started the chapter thinking it was one thing and it just went off in directions and in ways totally unexpected and unplanned.

What was going to be a general discussion of how to avoid the mushy middle of any story (the part of most novels and screenplays where writers drop the ball), became an examination of why the middles of stories fall apart, but also what patterns need to exist in the storytelling itself to make the middle solid with power and narrative drive.

I discovered how there were two “layers” operating at the same time that gave structure to the middle of every story (Classic Story Middle and the Narrative Story Middle), as well as two key patterns of character behavior that are essential for those two layers to work (the Pattern of Decline and the Pattern of Elevation).

These two layers and behavioral patterns work together to deliver a dramatically strong middle structure (plot) and flawless character development to support that middle. The Enneagram was at the center of most of this new theory.

In other words, the more a writer knows the Enneagram, the more likely it will be they will nail the middle of their story structurally.

All of this was completely unexpected by me, during the writing, and materialized magically out of my work with story structure and the Enneagram. That’s how it felt, anyway.

What was your writing journey like with this book? 

It nearly killed me, no kidding.

My first book, Anatomy of a Premise Line, took five months to write. It just flowed out of me. I fully expected this one to come fast and furious as well.

No such luck.

I needed two extensions from my publisher and I nearly canceled my contract, twice, because I was so stuck I couldn’t move. After three and a half years, I was ready to just throw in the towel. But, never say die, one day I literally woke from sleep and realized I had to cut three big chapters from the manuscript. I was hanging onto them all this time and they needed to go.

As soon as I did that the flow opened up and I saw the light at the end of the tunnel. Within several months I had a finished manuscript and I had ripped defeat from the jaws of… Whatever.

Why was this so hard, compared to my first book? I think because no one had ever written about this topic before. There were no roadmaps or comparables. I was literally creating new theory and applications as I was writing.

That’s why I don’t see this book as the “last word” on the subject. I fully expect others to take my work and build on it with new insights and new applications. This topic of the Enneagram and story is too big to be “owned” by any one person. I find that exciting.

What’s next for you and Rapid Story Development?

Stanford University will be offering the first 10-week, online training course version of Rapid Story Development in January 2020, so check out their School of Continuing Education catalogue, or my website for announcements.

Rapid Story Development by Jeff Lyons

I’m also developing more “Enneagram for Writers” classes and I have an ongoing eBook series I publish through my publishing imprint, Storygeeks Press, called “Rapid Story Development.” These eBooks are all available on Amazon.

Where can we buy your book?

Thanks for asking! You can pre-order Rapid Story Development: How to Use the Enneagram-Story Connection to Become a Master Storyteller on Amazon here. It releases on October 9, 2019.

Is there anything I didn’t ask that I should have?

Yes, I’m a dog person, not a cat person.

Thanks so much, Jeff!

About Rapid Story Development: How to Use the Enneagram-Story Connection to Become a Master Storyteller

This book offers a unique approach to storytelling, connecting the Enneagram system with classic story principles of character development, plot, and story structure to provide a seven-step methodology to achieve rapid story development. Using the nine core personality styles underlying all human thought, feeling, and action, it provides the tools needed to understand and leverage the Enneagram-Story Connection for writing success.

Author Jeff Lyons starts with the basics of the Enneagram system and builds with how to discover and design the critical story structure components of any story, featuring supporting examples of the Enneagram-Story Connection in practice across film, literature and TV. Readers will learn the fundamentals of the Enneagram system and how to utilize it to create multidimensional characters, master premise line development, maintain narrative drive, and create antagonists that are perfectly designed to challenge your protagonist in a way that goes beyond surface action to reveal the dramatic core of any story. Lyons explores the use of the Enneagram as a tool not only for character development, but for story development itself. This is the ideal text for intermediate and advanced level screenwriting and creative writing students, as well as professional screenwriters and novelists looking to get more from their writing process and story structure.

About Jeff Lyons

Jeff Lyons is an author, screenwriter, and instructor through Stanford University's Online Writer’s Studio, and lectures through the UCLA Extension Writers Program. Jeff has written on the craft of storytelling for Writer’s Digest Magazine, Script Magazine, and The Writer Magazine, and Writing Magazine (UK). His feature film, American Thunderbolt, is being produced by Hargenant Media, LTD for a 2020 release( UK); and his other book, Anatomy of a Premise Line: How to Master Premise and Story Development for Writing Success, is published through Focal Press.

Visit him at www.storygeeks.com and follow him on Twitter @storygeeks.

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