How to write a story
‘How to write a story’
By Yvette Carol
Have you always wanted to write a story but have no idea where to start?
On the following page, I have condensed and simplified the basics of story structure, as I’ve learned them from the greats. Here we’ll cover essential aspects of plot, character development and premise.
S – Setting
T – The characters
O – Obstacles
R – Reach
Y – Your goal
Good writing consists of: credible characters, a ‘story premise’ (see below), and tension, a textured sense of place, a careful unfolding of a rich sensory world motive, plot, fresh imagery, good clean sentence making, symbol and metaphor, rhythm, cadence, and voice. (Kate de Goldi).
(Or the big picture)
Your premise is essentially what your story is about in as short and boiled down a version as you can manage. Try to aim for 25-30 words max. For instance, the central story premise behind the movie, Groundhog Day, is ‘what if you lived the same day over and over again?’ Notice that the premise usually takes the form of an open question, ‘what would happen if… ?’
Robert McKee, in his non-fiction book, Story, calls the premise, ‘the day-dreamy hypothetical that floats through the mind, opening the door to the imagination where everything and anything is possible.’
The ‘premise’ sells the story. The goal of premise is to get someone to agree to read the whole book. As Larry Brooks says, ‘That’s the highest goal of premise… and then, later, premise turns into a story development tool by providing a rich and detailed “vision” for the story itself.’
‘For every new book I begin, I write out this one sentence on a word document as the very first writing I do. I print it out and put it where I can constantly see it. The kernel idea (story premise) is the moment of conception. Can you clearly state what your book is about in 25 words or less? This is a key, essential ingredient of writing a good book. This idea keeps you focused and on track.’ ~ Bob Mayer
If your premise is flat, you won’t get far. However if you have a simple, clear and compelling premise, you have raw grist for the story itself. Many writers suggest you create your premise before you write a story.
Premise and concept are different.
‘Simple and generic is best when stating a concept. View it this way: With a concept you’re not selling the story (via its premise), you’re selling the “conceptual story landscape” upon which the story (premise) will unfold. The goal of concept is to make someone want to know about the premise (the story set upon a conceptual landscape, or built upon a conceptual idea).’ ~ Larry Brooks.
Once you have a compelling premise and a rich concept, you are ready to chart the journey of your story. To do this, we need structure.
‘A propelling vision must be formed by craft.’ ~ Kate de Goldi
The simplest way of understanding plot is the Three Act Structure.
Using this form, the trajectory of the story is separated by Plot Points, its Act I (Beginning), Act II (Middle), and Act III (End) refers to fundamental stages along the way.
Act 1 sets up an introduction to the story (roughly the first 25% of the novel). Everything here basically sets up the issue the protagonist will spend 75% of the novel resolving.
Act II sets up the obstacles, at the end of which something complicates and spins off to the 3rd act.
Act III presents the climax and resolution.
(Think ‘Three Little Pigs’).
In the classic, traditional story arc, the story goes through two tension-building events to the third event. The story starts out close to the ground, rises with each event, goes through a gradual climb, to the eventual hurtling ‘whoosh’ of the climax, then there’s a precipitous drop to the end.
A longer story will have more than three acts but at least three. A short story or a picture book can go 1, 2, 3 peaks then cycle back to the beginning, like a circle.
The key is to build your main plot first, beginning, middle and end, to give your piece a strong spine.
Then, you can move on to your sub-plot arcs and character arcs.
‘Character agency is, to me, a demonstration of the character’s ability decisions to make and affect the story. This character has motivations all her own. She is active more than she is reactive. She pushes on the plot more than the plot pushes on her. Even better, the plot exists as a direct result of the character’s actions.’ ~ Chuck Wendig
Generally in fiction, there will be at least two if not more sub-plot arcs.
The rule of three arcs is the same but these are lesser issues to the main problem, while they still share the same goal as the main story arc, which is to ramp up the tension.
The sub-plot arc works like this:
Let’s say you’ve decided on three sub-plot arcs. Introduce them piecemeal, not all at once, or they might be resolved too soon. Remember the sub-plots feed the tension. So, you raise a question, do some foreshadowing (dropping clues), then as you move through the story, you will ‘resolve or answer’ that question. But before you answer it, and the tension dissipates, you start a second suspense line or sub-plot, it might be a secret or an event witnessed, or whatever, and you raise that second question and carry on dropping hints (foreshadowing). Then, before that question is resolved, you start the third suspense line or sub-plot which should be resolved before or just after the climax of the story as a whole.
‘The one thing that you have that nobody else has is you. Your voice, your mind, your story, your vision. So write, and draw, and build and play and dance and live as only you can.’ ~ Neil Gaiman
Your protagonist or main character needs to be fully realized, rounded and takes the most work beforehand (more on character development to follow). Therefore the arcs of his progress will be the most important. However, all your primary characters need their own arcs also. They are not there just for support. Even your antagonist or villain needs to grow and change. A static character is boring.
Remember, the pattern of an arc within a story is Act I, set up and intro, Act II, obstacles and complications which spin off to Act III, the climax and resolution.
‘Gore Vidal famously said that every writer has a repertory company of players. He thought Shakespeare had about fifty, Hemingway only one, and himself around ten.’ ~ Barbara O’Neal
‘Structure is not a prison—use tips and advice on it only as a map, but go down deep within yourself to find the road. Finding the road is the most pleasurable part of writing.’
Here are a few approaches to structure.
The simplest way of looking at story structure comes from Dean Koontz’s book, How to Write Bestselling Fiction, and looks like this:
- Plunge your main character into terrible trouble as soon as possible.
- Everything he does to make things better makes them worse.
- Make sure the last worst thing looks insurmountable.
- Then your hero succeeds by taking action, based on what he has learned about himself in the midst of all the challenges.
Or you can take a slightly more cerebral approach. Enter my tutor for the Warrior Writer’s course, Bob Mayer, who taught us that a ‘plotting checklist’ should look like this:
* Hero’s goal – our central character must have a goal strong enough to power the whole story. * Hero’s conflict – but something always gets in the way – what is the major obstacle? * Opening scene – the opening line and scene must raise a question, and start the suspense. * First Plot Point – this focuses the narrative onto the core conflict (the premise. The first major piece of the puzzle is delivered.)
* Second Plot Point – the choice is made or thrust upon the protagonist and this drives the story. Or the unexpected happens which raises the stakes. * Third Plot Point – this disaster usually happens around 75% through the piece, which leads the protagonist to… * The Black Moment. * Escalating bad stuff – the ending is the last 25% of the novel. The protagonist finally knows what to do and puts this new plan into action. This brings the final battle/standoff/crisis to a head. Stakes are higher. There is a climactic scene when the concept of the story and the premise are touched upon for extra poignancy. There may be a twist or an unexpected reversal here. However there is victory or anguish, depending on whether your story has a warm fuzzy ending. Then a nice wrap up.
Brooks suggests when you’re starting out thinking about your story, you reduce the structure to nine sentences: five major story milestones (hook, First Plot Point, Mid-Point, Second Plot Point, ending) and four parts (setup, response, attack, resolution).
- Hook – every good hero/ine must have a goal that raises a question and sets the pace.
- Setup – the first part of the story is ‘setting up’ your place, your concept/theme, your characters, the ‘problem’.
- First Plot Point – the first thing happens that changes the protagonist, and clearly defines the protagonist’s forthcoming quest (even if it’s just a story about misunderstanding).
- Response – the characters react to the obstacle, new dangers/issues occur, journey begins.
- Mid-Point – then revelations or plot twists, or events show context, new information comes in. A plan of action is forming. The protagonist has to ‘step up’.
- Attack – this is where the events/revelations start to transform our protagonist (and friends) and they become proactive.
- Second Plot Point – the protagonist is in attack mode.
- Resolution – whether it’s tragic or happy. The hero becomes a catalyst for….
- Ending – rounding off the story arc, the character arcs and sub-plot arcs. The ending needs to tidy all loose ends and be satisfying.
Structure is required in all of art. Dancing, painting, singing, you name it–all art forms require structure. Writing is no different. To bring a story to its full potential, authors must understand the form’s limitations, as well as put its many parts into proper order to achieve maximum effect. K.M. Weiland, Structuring Your Novel
- Overcoming the monster
- The Quest
- Journey and return
‘Start by Brainstorming!’ ~ Yvette Carol
MIND MAPS ~
This is some advice from a friend, Mike Healey, writer, artist and former BBC director,
“Yvette, let’s imagine you are putting together your initial ideas for a novel. Get a large sheet of paper and some colored pens. Use lines, circles, squares or other shapes or symbols to represent different aspects of your plot, the way characters interact or conflict plus key locations or plotlines. You are not at this stage looking for a sequential narrative but ‘thinking out loud’ and letting ideas flow freely. What you end up with is a graphic expression of your emerging plot and how the characters might clash or merge with each other. It is also a way of graphically expressing the underlying themes of the novel. Mind maps allow you to think outside the box, laterally. They are sometimes known as ‘Spidergraphs’. There are numerous examples on the web for you to look at if you are unfamiliar with this technique. Bottom line is that it is a way to think creatively at that early stage in the development of your creative work.”
‘When you are mind mapping, you don’t need to think linearly yet. You just want to throw ideas onto the paper to let your story start gelling. Try to come up with ten strong scenes that will be the pivotal moments in your story.’ C.S. Lakin, Ways Novelists Can Brainstorm Plot and Scenes
CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT ~
Because one of my formative teachers was Kate de Goldi, I share her belief, that good story grows out a fully realized central character. Therefore, when I’m developing an idea, I always start with my characters, from the protagonist (hero), to the antagonist (villain), and so on down through the main players.
I set up a fresh notebook. Then I start to write lists.
I brainstorm everything about my characters. Here are some examples to get you started:
Describe his/her: physical appearance
Favourite people – family, friends
Ask yourself, ‘who does your character hate to kiss?’ (and note the smells, sounds and feeling attached to that)
To create more back-story for characters, you can use this line to interrogate them, ‘I used to…’ ‘But now I…’ over and over again, until you nail them down.
Some people swear by using Prout’s list of ‘35 questions’ as a way of interviewing their characters:
Here is Proust’s Questionnaire:
- What is your idea of perfect happiness?
- What is your greatest fear?
- What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
- What is the trait you most deplore in others?
- Which living person do you most admire?
- What is your greatest extravagance?
- What is your current state of mind?
- What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
- On what occasion do you lie?
- What do you most dislike about your appearance?
- Which living person do you most despise?
- What is the quality you most like in a man?
- What is the quality you most like in a woman?
- Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
- What or who is the greatest love of your life?
- When and where were you happiest?
- Which talent would you most like to have?
- If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
- What do you consider your greatest achievement?
- If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be?
- Where would you most like to live?
- What is your most treasured possession?
- What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
- What is your favorite occupation?
- What is your most marked characteristic?
- What do you most value in your friends?
- Who are your favorite writers?
- Who is your hero of fiction?
- Which historical figure do you most identify with?
- Who are your heroes in real life?
- What are your favorite names?
- What is it that you most dislike?
- What is your greatest regret?
- How would you like to die?
- What is your motto?
Keep your notebook, as you will refer back to it. This resource will be especially helpful in making sure you don’t make basic mistakes like changing a character’s eye or hair colour partway through the narrative!
Healey once told me this tip: “Another trick I use is to create a simple card index for characters. This not only ensures that I get the names right but allows me to add brief notes as to role, hair colour, height etc. If, like me, your characters reappear in subsequent novels then you always have a useful reference source to go back to.”
In my Character Development notebook, I also flesh out all the other details or what Kate de Goldi calls, ‘organizing principles’:
Time: the season, the week, the day, the time of day, the weather, the age of characters.
Geography: the street, the neighbourhood, the town/village, garden, how long does it take to walk from home to..?
I set up headings for Background, Setting, History, time, etc. From then on, always have the topography of the house, and the landscape, very clear in your mind. If you’re a visual person, you can add pictures, maps, clippings, photos of buildings, etc.
I also build a rough time line – sheets of A4 strung together with sticky tape. For many years I was a BBC TV director and would plan my films this way. If I wanted to add a new scene, I would simply cut it in. I ended up with something that resembled a Roman scroll but it was a very effective way to develop linear and/or parallel narratives.
Conflict drives stories. Though it’s hard for us as the writer to put our characters in jeopardy that is what we must do. Conflict is either character-driven or plot-driven; every writer will gravitate to the form that suits them best.
Bob Mayer says the hero and the villain’s goal must be diametrically opposed. If one gets his goal the other won’t get it or if one gets his goal the other will suffer. Their ambitions must butt heads directly to work.
And I’ll leave the last word to a great author, PJ Reece, “Now let’s write our brains out passionately and with minimal reference to grids and rules. Let’s write from a love of the art and the heart of fiction.”