This week author Crys Cain is joined by special guest JP Rindfleisch. They discuss what a story hypothesis is and how you can use this tool to improve your writing process.
Crys: Hello, friends and welcome to The Author Life Podcast. I’m Crys Cain, and with me this week is not J Thorn, but my other co-host from The Write Away Podcast, JP Rindfleisch. Welcome, JP.
Crys: So I made a scheduling booboo. J and I talked a while ago and had agreed to record on the 30th, but I never put it on the calendar. And he and I are ruled by our calendar, so it didn’t happen because it wasn’t on the calendar.
So with me going on holiday these next two weeks, you’ll be hearing from a few folks. Last week we had Kathrese McKee, which is a three-story method editor interview I actually did a while ago. And this week will be JP. And next week will be another special guest, to be decided.
And JP, you are a urban fantasy paranormal author currently. Your first novel is about to come out, you have a serial story that you’ve been working on with Jeff Elkins, and you are a three-story method editor with a specialty of what you call the story hypothesis.
Would you mind describing what the story hypothesis is?
JP: Yeah. Okay. So story hypothesis is my way of basically intermingling theme and needs and creating an argument and/or guess about some aspect of survival in your story that you are going to debate your work as. That’s the gist of it.
Crys: So let me poke some holes in this, poke some questions at this, so our readers can understand. You said a belief or a message about survival. Why survival?
JP: So survival, Brian McDonald talks about this with armature. So armature is another way of describing theme and this is where story hypothesis came from. But it’s the point of your story, and really when it comes down to it, all stories are a form of survival. It’s a way in which you can convey a message to another person that resonates and it is something that hits them.
When you’re talking about really early stories, it’s the things you said around the campfire so that people wouldn’t go out in the dark and get eaten by a lion. Now it can be wonderful stories about hope and parental love. But regardless, they’re what I would call some type of a form of survival or living within this world.
Crys: Yeah, how to survive childhood trauma.
Crys: So what’s an example of what a story hypothesis might look like? If you can pull from like one of your stories or from a movie or something.
JP: Absolutely. So I really love Max Nief’s taxonomy of human needs. And this is the foundation for story hypothesis that I use. So there are nine needs and they weigh on us differently, depending on what we need at any time. I really love this method as opposed to a hierarchy of needs, because when it comes to building a story hypothesis, all needs are important, it’s just which ones are pulling on you.
So I’m just gonna give quickly what they all are. Subsistence, so like survival and food, protection, affection, understanding, participation in the form of rising up, recreation, creation, identity, and freedom.
So as an example, let’s take the Handmaid’s Tale because either you’ve heard about it on Hulu or you’ve maybe read it, and I think that this hypothesis fits with both of them. But I really feel like in the Handmaid’s Tale, the needs are freedom, participation, and protection.
When it comes down to it, Handmaid’s Tale is very dystopian. Participation or that need to rise up is something that’s really common in those sorts of stories, as is freedom. And then this need for protection really drives this whole story. It’s protecting oneself and protecting others. So I come up with this hypothesis and it is, we cannot protect the ones we love unless we stand up against our captors and fight for the freedoms we deserve. And I feel like that is something that carries true through the whole story, and it’s ways that you can argue that that happened throughout that story.
Crys: So say you’re working on your own story, and you’ve identified the needs as topics that you’re discussing in your story, things that your characters are gonna deal with, you have crafted a story hypothesis about those needs that is like something you believe and you wanna prove true in your story, how do you prove that? How do you write a story now that you have a story hypothesis?
JP: Yeah. Like, why does this exist? How does this actually help me? I believe, and this is why I use it, I’m actually using it for the urban fantasy that I’m working on now for a publish in six project, but I like to use it as a way to think about what is the ultimate low for this hypothesis? What’s the ultimate high? What may be some like false flags or outliers that one could argue? All this sounds like a bunch of sciencey stuff, but it makes me think about…
Crys: Why does it sound like a bunch of sciencey stuff, JP?
JP: Because I come from the science realm. I have a background in science and I really like logical thinking. It helps in my realm of thoughts.
So when it comes to the Handmaid’s Tale, let’s just use that as a continued example. If we can’t participate the ones we love unless we stand up. So if June doesn’t stand up, she can’t protect the ones she loves. So any time that happens and she’s not standing up, she is losing her friend, she’s losing her family, she’s losing a chance to see her daughter again. And it’s until she rises up, until she stands up against it.
So now I can think of scenes. What does that look like when we have a scene where she has the opportunity to fight? It may not be a good opportunity, but she has that opportunity, and she doesn’t take it. Now there are repercussions and because I have a hypothesis written, I know what those repercussions are, and I can show that on the page.
Then as the story progresses, I can think about different ways. Maybe there’s a time where she can stand up, but it doesn’t go so well for her. But is she going to get a form of protection for someone else, maybe at the risk of protecting herself? You can think about these things as you move through the story. And to me, that really drives the scenes that I’m going to have, because I’m trying to prove my hypothesis throughout.
Crys: So to me, it seems like you do this a little bit backwards from a scientific experiment because you get to be in control of everything. The story, you know that the story hypothesis you start out is going to be proven true at the end. So you’re figuring out all the experiments that you’re going to write and how they’re going to support your truth.
JP: Yeah. A hundred percent. It’s like a debate class almost. It probably would fit better in that realm, but I decided hypothesis, because why not?
Crys: Yeah. You’re a science nerd. You like it.
JP: Yeah, exactly. But yeah, it helps me process through story structure, because I’m a big planner, so it helps me in knowing what the expectations are and how to use that hypothesis so that I’m telling a story that resonates. To me, I feel like if I’m able to come up with three big core needs that the story has, so like the one I’m working on right now is affection, identity, and protection, and come up with a hypothesis around that, then I know that from the beginning to the end, I’m gonna show different facets as my character learns their how to be affectionate towards others, how to understand themselves, and how to not only protect themselves, but figure out how to protect a community. Because that’s where my story and my direction is with those three needs. And that’s why I love using story hypothesis and why I like talking about it.
Crys: Now, how do you help clients with using the story hypothesis? Do you generally consult with them before they’ve written the story or do you help them work through the story hypothesis after they’ve written the story?
JP: So mostly clients come to me for story diagnostics, so they already have their first draft out. And I, I pick apart what that story hypothesis is, and I’ll present it to them there. And I’ll bring up suggestions as to like how can we really punch up the scene when we look at the story as a whole and we have this hypothesis. It really helps when there are moments in the story where the author has clearly said like, I don’t feel like this choice was right. And we can talk about that and we can say well, what does that look like with this hypothesis? And we can really think through how we can utilize that hypothesis to make a choice that aligns with those needs.
I have worked with like I think one or two clients beforehand, and we talk about it and then we maybe talk about like the ups and downs of where this hypothesis would take us and a planning process. And funny enough, in Serial Fiction Show I use this a lot when we interview authors and I’m reading like their first or. second serial episode, and I’m picking up on a theme, and I’ll present it to them. And I would say 90% of the time, that’s the theme that they’re gonna go with throughout the whole thing, which really suggests that one can pick a theme almost from the first chapter.
So that’s why I think it’s important because you’re setting someone up for a story right off the start, so why not have it be this thread that carries through.
Crys: Yeah, I love this. And we’ve talked a lot about this over on the Write Away Podcast and kind of our differing approaches because while we both use the story hypothesis in some way, like the sentence that you’re proving throughout your story, you tend to start with it while I start with the character and the lie they believe or their fault.
JP: Mm-hmm, yeah.
Crys: And so you can start anywhere in the process, but you tend to do the top down approach of figuring out the big thing and all the pieces underneath it. And I figure out a few key pieces, and then figure out what that leads to.
JP: Yeah. It it’s funny too, because when I’m using that hypothesis, that’s how I derive characters as well. Because I’m like, where are the worst versions of these? And I try to pull the characters out. Which is the same approach you have with the lie, is you try to find those facets of that lie to pull characters from. You don’t need a hypothesis, obviously. Listener out there didn’t know this existed before, but it is just another tool that one can use if they want to.
Crys: Well, and one of the things that I like is that it’s flexible about when you bring it in in your process.
JP: Mm-hmm, absolutely. Yeah, because like the hypothesis I have right now is pre-drafting. That might change and that’s okay. And I’ll probably keep a couple, I might change one need. I don’t know. And then when I go through the editing process, I can adjust for it.
Crys: Thank you so much for joining me on The Author Life Podcast today. If listeners want to know more about you and your work, where can they find you?
JP: Absolutely. They can go to JPRindfleischix.com
Crys: And link will be in the show notes. Also, if you’re interested in hearing JP on more podcasts, of course you can find him and I over at the Write Away Podcast, but also at the Serial Fiction Show, which it has a unique structure in that it has one side for fiction and readers and one side for writers. We’ll have links to those in the show notes.
Thank you so much for joining me each and every week at the Author Life Podcast. If you are interested in the topics that we discussed here on the podcast, then please check out www.theauthorlife.com.