This is not my usual type of Rambling post, in fact this is not a Rambling at all, but a serious article…without nice pictures to look at :-(
I posted an article a short while ago entitled ‘Why would you ever bother reading a book’.
The majority of folk understood that there is absolutely no other medium which can take you on the same journey, in the same personal manner, as reading a great story.
However there were still some, a very few I am gild to say, who admitted to not reading, not wanting to read, or suggested that watching a film or television is exactly the same as reading!
Oh how my head hurts!!!
However that said there are reasons that so many books ‘out there’ do read in much the same way as a movie is constructed. One of the main reasons for this is the demand from mainstream publishers for the majority of their titles to follow a predictable format.
This is a very similar format which is used in mainstream visual arts, film, televised plays, series etc.
The main reason is that it is the literary agencies and publishing houses duty to sell books AND make a profit while doing so.
With only a very few exceptions, by selecting manuscripts which follow the old ‘tried & tested’ formats the publishers almost guarantee a return. The downside is that many great stories are left untold, the public’s choice diminished.
This results in too many authors’ works are rejected in favour of those who are willing to ‘sell their soul’ for a few sheckles by producing the same story over and again, the only difference being the location and the characters names.
Many Romance, Thriller, Crime and Fantasy writers are skilled at using set formulas. I shall mention no names here. But you know who they are!
So what is this wonderful formula?
Simply it is a set of between six and nine ‘Plot Points’ which can be applied to almost any story in any genre.
I shall now endeavour to explain.
(This is a longer than normal post, but for clarity it must be. So if you have little interest in story construction you may leave now)!
So may all of you who do not wish to ‘Sell out’ your individualism, the artistic artisan skills of a indie writer……Just saying!
I have said above that a conventional STORY PLOT has between six and nine ‘plot points’, I will work with eight points; just to be awkward!
So first we must grasp what these points are intended to do, after which we can look into each in a little more depth.
This is the “every day life” in which the story is set. Think of Cinderella sweeping the ashes, Jack (of Beanstalk fame) living in poverty with his mum and a cow, or Harry Potter living with the Dursley’s.
Something beyond the control of the protagonist (hero/heroine) is the trigger which sparks off the story. A fairy godmother appears, someone pays in magic beans not gold, a mysterious letter arrives … you get the picture.
The trigger results in a quest – an unpleasant trigger (e.g. a protagonist losing his job) might involve a quest to return to the status quo; a pleasant trigger (e.g. finding a treasure map) means a quest to maintain or increase the new pleasant state.
This stage involves not one but several elements, and takes up most of the middle part of the story. “Surprise” includes pleasant events, but more often means obstacles, complications, conflict and trouble for the protagonist.
At some stage, your protagonist needs to make a crucial decision; a critical choice. This is often when we find out exactly who a character is, as real personalities are revealed at moments of high stress. Watts stresses that this has to be a decision by the character to take a particular path – not just something that happens by chance.
In many classic stories, the “critical choice” involves choosing between a good, but hard, path and a bad, but easy, one.
In tragedies, the unhappy ending often stems from a character making the wrong choice at this point – Romeo poisoning himself on seeing Juliet supposedly dead, for example.
The critical choice(s) made by your protagonist need to result in the climax, the highest peak of tension, in your story.
For some stories, this could be the firing squad levelling their guns to shoot, a battle commencing, a high-speed chase or something equally dramatic. In other stories, the climax could be a huge argument between a husband and wife, or a playground fight between children, or Cinderella and the Ugly Sisters trying on the glass slipper.
The reversal should be the consequence of the critical choice and the climax, and it should change the status of the characters – especially your protagonist. For example, a downtrodden wife might leave her husband after a row; a bullied child might stand up for a fellow victim and realise that the bully no longer has any power over him; Cinderella might be recognised by the prince.
Your story reversals should be inevitable and probable. Nothing should happen for without reason, changes in status should not fall out of the sky. The story should unfold as life unfolds: relentlessly, implacably, and plausibly.
The resolution is a return to a fresh stasis – one where the characters should be changed, wiser and enlightened, but where the story being told is complete.
Ummph. So you got all that?
Now you have your eight points, so let’s delve a little deeper.
Consider the above the ‘rough sketch’ of you stories outline. Now you need to build your guide so you do not wander ‘off track’ or write yourself into a ‘dead end’.
Now let’s build you story into that Novel.
Plots, subplots, characters, goals and conflicts are introduced at the beginning of a story. Your goal is to pull the reader in with an exciting opening, then begin setting up the basis for the rest of the book. Depending on the length and complexity of your story, the beginning generally amounts to about the first 50 pages.
The start of your story is where you introduce your main characters’ attributes and motivations. The qualities you give your characters are what makes the reader care about them. Your characters’ behaviour, reactions and introspection, as well as their ever-evolving goals, draw sympathy and interest from the reader. The main characters in your story don’t have to be the moral equivalent of Snow White, either. Even character flaws and sins can draw the reader’s sympathy.
Don’t be afraid to get inside your characters – revealing their most heinous thoughts and secrets along with their most noble ones – in order to create compassion in your readers. It’s important to think about your characters’ conflicts, motivations, intentions and weaknesses right from the start. As the outlining process grows more intense, your insights into your characters will deepen, and your finished manuscript will be much the better for it.
Your reader needs to be assured from your very first sentence that something suspenseful and exciting is happening or about to happen. Conflict is the root of everything exciting and suspenseful in your story.
Conflict can be internal or external. Each of your main characters should have internal conflicts – opposing desires, beliefs or motivations. External conflict can (and should) occur between characters, but characters can conflict with other things as well (such as fate). A solid plot gives all main characters (including the villain) internal and external conflicts.
Be sure to lay the groundwork for conflict in the beginning section of your outline.
Keep the following tips in mind when building opportunities for action and suspense into the beginning of your story:
1 Keep the reader on edge with baffling contrasts in characters, setting and dialogue. If you put two seemingly opposed characters in play together, you’ll intrigue your readers and they will stick around to figure out why.
2 Take advantage of pacing, especially as you move toward and through the middle of your story. Don’t rush in to pick up the story threads. Keep the reader guessing.
Draw out scenes involving rescues and explanations. Offer the reader unsatisfactory alternatives to problems. Alternate suspense and action within your outline, even if just by giving yourself stage directions for accomplishing this.
3 Carefully construct mood by using description, dialogue, introspection and action.
4 Use foreshadowing. Foreshadowing shouldn’t answer the crucial questions of a story but, instead, create possibilities or uncertainties that will evoke mild or extreme tension in the reader.
Conflict, suspense and motivation will be the driving forces behind your story. Lay the groundwork for them in your outline, and they will reach their full potential in your story.
Now that we’ve reviewed the fundamentals of writing a good beginning, let’s discuss the first section of the story evolution worksheet:
1 Conflict is introduced
Most writers have been advised to begin each story with a bang. There’s a good reason for that. You want to hook your reader as early as possible. Detail here what will happen in your first scene, and briefly describe how the conflict you introduce at this point will dominate your story through each section. Also, hint at looming conflicts. As your beginning progresses, you’ll want to fully introduce the villain.
2 Story goal is introduced
The story goal is your dominant plot thread. You will introduce it at the beginning of the book. Review your plot sketch worksheet from your preliminary outline (Worksheet 4), then describe the story goal and how it will push your story forward through each section.
3 Characters are outfitted for their tasks
The character sketches you have created as part of your preliminary outline will help you continue to think about who your main characters are and how they’re involved in achieving the story’s goal.
Your characters should be designed with the resolution of the story goal in mind. They should have strengths they themselves aren’t aware of at the beginning of the story – strengths that evolve steadily throughout the course of the book as the characters face adversity.
They also should have internal and/or external weaknesses that hinder their progress. Detail these things in this section.
As you think about the first 50 or so pages that set up the premise of your book, continue to expand on the three points we’ve just covered. These points will help you come up with everything you need to keep your audience reading voraciously.
If you haven’t already, review the plot sketch worksheet (Worksheet 4) you began while creating your preliminary outline. The middle is usually the largest portion of any book. In this section, plots, subplots and conflicts work together to create a tug-of-war between the story goal and the opposition. Essentially, the action in the middle section of a book revolves around the main characters confronting the opposition, though most of the time this opposition is hidden from or unseen by the lead characters.
Your main characters must grow throughout this section of the book. Therefore, each of the events that take place within this section will require multiple scenes to work in and work out. In other words, you will be planning multiple scenes for each pull in the tug-of-war between your main characters and their opposition. The longer your book, the more complex this tug-of-war will be.
Here’s how the story evolution worksheet can help you to plan out the middle of your book:
1 Characters design short-term goals to reach the story goal
For each main character, introduce short-term goals that will assist that character in reaching the story goal. Give a brief description of each goal and how each character is attempting to reach it. Use your plot sketch (Worksheet 4) as a springboard for this section.
2 Quest to reach the story goal begins
In this section the characters put their first short-term goals into action. Sketch out what they go through during this time.
3 First short-term goals are thwarted
The first short-term goal proves impossible. What events take place to make this failure come about?
4 Characters react with disappointment
Characters react differently to disappointment, and these reactions show the kind of people they are. Provide insight into each major character’s reactions.
5 Stakes of the conflict are raised
Giving up the quest to reach the story goal is never really an option, though the characters may wish they could. In every exciting story with worthy heroes, something always happens to make it impossible to concede defeat. Inevitably, the stakes are raised and a new danger is introduced. Detail the new danger and its effect on all subplots.
6 Characters react to the conflict
In this section describe each main character’s initial reaction to the new danger or problem.
7 Characters revise old or design new short-term goals
Though the initial reaction to the danger is usually one that’s far from calm and logical, this must be a temporary reaction. Eventually, each main character will need to devise a new short-term goal to lead him/her closer to reaching the story goal. Briefly describe each character’s plan of action.
8 Quest to reach the story goal is continued
The characters put their new short-term goals in action. In this section, sketch out what they go through during this time.
9 Short-term goals are again thwarted
The new short-term goals prove as impossible as the first. What events took place to make this failure come about?
10 Characters react with disappointment
Character reactions will run the gamut here, but each character will be tiring of the battle a little more each time he/she fails.
11 Stakes of the conflict are raised
Remember that each time something happens, it must create ever more dire consequences if the characters don’t act quickly.
12 Characters react to the conflict
Show marked growth in the characters. Make the readers empathise with them. At this stage you can repeat steps 7-10 as many times as necessary to accommodate your story’s length and complexity. Steps 11 and 12 aren’t repeated here because the cycle becomes more dramatic with each repetition, thus allowing the last half of the middle portion of your book to be even tenser and your characters more desperate.
13 Downtime begins
The last section of the middle portion of the story begins with the downtime, which precedes the black moment. Your characters are coming to feel they have nothing left to hold on to. Detail these feelings.
14 Characters revise old or design new short-term goals
Your characters are going to make their next decisions out of sheer desperation. From this point on, they seem to lose much of their confidence – or, worse, they’re feeling a reckless sense of bravado that may have tragic consequences. What are their new goals and how do they plan to reach them?
15 The quest to reach the story goal continues, but instability abounds
Though your characters are ploughing ahead bravely, each step is taken with deep uncertainty. How does this action unfold?
16 The black moment begins
The worst possible failure has now come to pass. The short-term goals made in desperation are thwarted, and the stakes are raised to fever pitch as the worst of all possible conflicts is unveiled. Describe it in detail.
17 The characters react to the black moment
Characters react to this major conflict with a sense of finality. Never will there be a moment when the outcome is more in question than in this concluding section of the middle of the book.
The end bit….
At the end of a book, all plots, subplots and conflicts are resolved. In the last few chapters, the characters are finally given a well-deserved break from their recent crisis. Here’s how it takes shape through the story evolution worksheet:
1 A pivotal, life-changing event occurs Something crucial must happen in the first part of the end section – something that will change the lives of the characters irrevocably.
2 Characters modify short-term goals one last time
Whatever the life-altering experience the characters face, the desperation that drove them only a few chapters earlier is completely gone. They’ve never had such clarity of purpose as they do at this moment, and they revise their goals with the kind of determination that convinces the reader they can’t possibly fail.
3 The showdown begins
The main characters and opposition come face to face. It’s in these moments of confrontation that the main characters move to accomplish the story goal.
4 The opposition is vanquished and the conflict ends
You know the showdown that follows the moment of clarity very well.
5 The story goal is achieved
That which all the characters have been striving for has come to pass and this will affect everything. Detail the consequences of victory.
6 Characters react to the resolution of the plot and subplots
In this section, release is given to the characters who have worked so hard to achieve the story goal. Describe their reactions.
7 Characters revise their life goals
At this point the main characters have learned what they’re capable of. Now their life goals are revised.
8 Possible re-emergence of the conflict or opposition
At the end of a book it’s possible for the conflict or opposition to re-emerge – just when you and the characters thought it was safe.
Using a story evolution worksheet to plot the course of your story helps you to:
(1) see a snapshot of the highlights of your story; (2) pinpoint with accuracy precisely where potential problems are within the story; (3) make the weak areas of your story more solid; (4) avoid sagging, uninteresting middles; and (5) avoid repetition in your stories.
Once you’ve learned to see the framework of a story, you’ll never look at a book the same way again. What was invisible has become visible, even stark. As an author yourself, you now hold the key to creating the strongest framework for your novels.
Structure is something that every agent, editor, publisher, Hollywood executive, public speaker, marketer and story teller talks about, to the point that it can seem complicated, intricate, mysterious and hard to master. So I want to give you a starting point for properly structuring your novel, screenplay or presentation without overwhelming you with rules and details and jargon.
Here are what I consider ten key elements of structure – ten ways of looking at structure that will immediately improve the emotional impact – and commercial potential – of your story.
- THE SINGLE RULE OF STRUCTURE
There is only one rule for achieving proper plot structure: What’s happening now must be inherently more interesting than what just happened. The goal of structure – the goal of your entire story, in fact – is to elicit emotion in the reader or audience. If your story is increasingly compelling as you move forward, that’s all you need to worry about.
- IT’S ALL ABOUT THE GOAL
The events and turning points in your story must all grow out of your hero’s desire. Without an outer motivation for your protagonist – a clear, visible objective your hero is desperate to achieve – your story can’t move forward. Repeatedly ask yourself, “What does my hero (or heroine) want to achieve by the end of the story? Can readers clearly envision what achieving that goal will look like? And will they be rooting for my hero to reach that finish line?” Apply the same questions to whatever scene: “What does my hero want in this sequence? And how is this immediate goal linked to her ultimate outer motivation?” If your answer is “I don’t know,” or, “They don’t,” your story is dead in the water (a sailing term that means “adrift, not going anywhere”).
- MORE, BIGGER, BADDER
Structure is built on desire, but the emotion you must elicit grows out of conflict. The more obstacles a character must overcome, and the more impossible it seems that he will succeed, the more captivated your audience will be. The conflict must build: each successive problem, opponent, hurdle, weakness, fear and setback must be greater than those that preceded it. Repeatedly ask yourself, “How can I make it even harder for this character to get what he wants?”
- SOMETHING OLD, SOMETHING NEW
In each successive scene, something must happen that has never happened before: a new situation for the hero; a new secret to reveal; a new ally to join; and new enemy to confront; a new lover to pursue; a new (even bigger) problem to solve; a new tool for solving it. If scenes are interchangeable, or if nothing of significance changes from one scene to the next, you’re treading water.
- BEFORE AND AFTER
In creating the overall structure for your story, look at it as symmetrical, and divided into three sections (these are NOT the three acts – we’re looking at structure a bit differently here). Section 1 shows us your hero at the beginning of the story, living his everyday life. He’s stuck in some way – settling for something, resigned to a life that isn’t that fulfilling, or oblivious to the fact that deep down he longs for more.
At the other end of this symmetrical structure is another portrait of that same hero, this time transformed. Living a different life, more mature and self-aware than he was at the beginning. This final sequence must give us a clear picture of your hero, after having reaped the rewards (positive or negative) for finding (or not) the physical and/or emotional courage that was necessary to achieve his goal and complete his journey.
In between these before and after snapshots is the journey itself – the hero’s pursuit of that all-important goal. This is where the compelling desire and the overwhelming conflict come face to face. But without those beginning and ending sequences, the structure is incomplete, and the story won’t work.
- THE OPPORTUNITY
At the end of that opening snapshot your hero must be presented with some opportunity. Something must happen to your hero that will engender her initial desire, and move her into some new situation. This is where the forward movement of your story begins, and it is out of this new situation (often geographic, always unfamiliar) that your hero’s outer motivation will ultimately emerge.
- FOCUS & DETERMINATION
Whatever outer motivation drives your hero, she shouldn’t begin pursuing that goal immediately. She must get acclimated to her new situation, must figure out what’s going on or where she fits in, until what has been a fairly broad or undefined desire comes into focus. Only then can she begin taking action toward the specific outer motivation that defines your story.
- LINES & ARCS
Structure applies to both the outer journey of achievement, and the inner journey of transformation. In other words, as the hero moves on the visible path toward that finish line, facing ever increasing obstacles, he must also gradually find greater and greater courage to overcome whatever fears have been holding him back and keeping him from finding real fulfillment or self worth. Repeatedly ask yourself “How is my hero changing in this scene? How are his emotional fears revealed and tested?” And, ultimately, “What does my protagonist have the courage to do at the end of the story that he didn’t have the courage to do at the beginning?” Whatever the answer, this is your hero’s character arc.
- SECRETS & LIES
Superior position is the term for telling your reader or audience something that some of the characters in the story don’t know. This gives you one of your most powerful structural tools: anticipation. When we know who and where the killer is before the hero does, or when we know the hero is keeping a big secret, we will keep turning the page to see what happens when that conflict appears, or that secret is revealed.
- TURN FANTASY INTO REALITY
Your job as a writer is not simply to take the reader to incredible places and show them exciting or astonishing characters and events – it’s to make the reader believe they are real. Your reader wants to suspend disbelief, but you’ve got to enable them to do that, by having your characters behave in consistent, credible ways. Your audience is eager to embrace fantastic, faraway worlds, bigger than life characters and startling events, but only if your characters react to them the way people in the real world would. You can even give your hero extraordinary powers, but we have to learn how she acquired them, and these powers must be limited in some way, in order to make her vulnerable.
This list certainly doesn’t cover every element or principle of plot structure that I lecture about or use with my consulting clients. Nor does it reveal all of the tools and turning points at your disposal. But every story I have ever encountered that followed these ten principles was properly – and effectively – structured.