The story information and advice below isn’t all mine. A lot of it comes from Alan Gratz, an author I heard speak at a SCBWI conference in Charlotte last year. It was a helpful and straight forward talk that helped me smooth out some kinks in my writing process. The following is a mix of his information and my thoughts and experiences with story structure.
Building a solid story is easier than it looks, as long as you have the right tools. It’s not as mysterious a process as some writers would have you believe. Still, it takes a fair amount of organizational skill to pull it all together. Being able to write well helps too.
Don’t Begin Without the End
I’ve made this mistake several times. It’s why I have three half finished books on the shelf. You get a great idea, whip up some fun characters, and you start writing. You’re not sure where the story is going, but you figure it will come to you as you go. Finding the story as you write often results in uneven story arcs, poorly developed characters, a wandering plot, and more. There are exceptions to every rule, and this works for some people, not for me. Know where you’re going before you start your journey.
You will discover things as you write, and you might deviate from the path you originally set, that’s fine, at least you have a path, a final destination.
Does that mean I have to do an outline?
Not really. Some people hate the idea of outlining. Writing a story is hard enough. Doing a detailed outline just adds more work, plus it’s really hard to stay focused on it when you just want to get the story out of your head and on to paper. Your patience will pay off if you decide to outline. For those of you just dying to write, I’ve come up with a quick visual guide for making a fast outline.
The Basic Arc
All stories must have a beginning, middle and end. They don’t have to start at a real beginning—birth, the morning time, the start of a race—but they still must have a beginning. It seems like silly thing to point out, but there are tons of stories out there, especially in video games, that lack proper beginnings. Think of it like an actual arc, like the one below.
That arc is as basic as it gets, a very simple story. This is the broad idea or initial premise for your story. You know the beginning and you know the end, now you need to figure out how to get there.
For the sake of simplicity, let’s split this story arc into three acts. Each act should have a beginning, middle and end. Some stories have five acts, seven, or more. Why odd numbers? They just work better. In copy writing you never make a list less than three, five is better if you can swing it. Come to think of it, there are tons of little lessons copy writers can bring into long form stories, but that’s a very different blog. Here’s what your new three act arc would look like:
The story’s got a bit more depth now. Think of each act as a story within a story. You need to tell the story of act one—it’s the beginning, the setup. The end of act one will get your characters and plot to act two. The stuff in act two will get them to act three, and the stuff in act three will get them to the end of your story.
If you’re just itching to write, you could stop there. Personally I prefer to dig even deeper. Act one is a story within your overall story, and within that story there are even more tales to be told. These arcs represent character development, small yet important scenes of dialog, and tidbits of plot progression.
This is also the point that I start asking myself the questions that tie the story together. It’s important to come up with the beginning, middle and end of an arc, but it’s even more important to come up with the “why” of each mini arc. What’s the purpose of this arc and how does it fit in with the overall story? What are the characters learning here? What do you want the reader to learn here?
As you make your outline consider filling in this blank, “I’m writing this scene because ____”
One question I ask my early readers often is how the section they read made them feel. Personally I write for tone and emotion. I want you to feel a certain way after you read a chapter. If you’re not feeling that way, I need to tweak something. You can’t force everyone to feel the same way of course, but you can try.
Putting It Together
I tried to show this process as best I can visually, but at some point it starts to look a little crazy. So instead of more pictures, I’ll show you—in bullet form—how I put this all together before writing my most recent novel.
- First I came up with the premise, my story and my characters. The premise is the easy part. Anyone can come up with a cool premise. Coaxing that story out of the deep dark corner of your mind is more challenging. That’s a different blog post though.
- I’m an illustrator too, and I like to see my characters. So I spent some time sketching them. I also wrote a bit about each one of them. Likes, dislikes, appearance, brief history, etc. There are forms for this online that are absurdly complex, but I’m not a big fan of them. Know your character enough to know what he/she would do in any given situation and then move on.
- Next I decided how many chapters the book would have: 25
- I made a numbered list 1 to 25 and wrote a sentence next to each number. This sentence summed up what happened in that chapter. Something like “they escape from prison” or “the Informant’s identity is revealed.” Real basic stuff.
- After the list I started a new 25 page document.
- On each page I put the sentence for that chapter at the top. Then I fleshed it out with a tiny bit more detail. I repeated the process till I had a short paragraph for every chapter.
- I read through the paragraph outline and then went back to each page a third time.
- This time I asked questions. Each page started with these three things:
- Characters in this chapter
- What do they learn?
- What does the reader learn?
- After answering those questions I fleshed out the rough paragraph to a full page. Now I had a fairly detailed outline of each chapter.
- After reading the full thing again, I printed it out, stuck it in a notebook with my character sketches and started writing. This whole process took me just over two weeks (with my day job).
- It wasn’t perfect.
- It might seem like I had the entire book chiseled out before I began, but I didn’t. The little details were still waiting to be uncovered. Those came through writing, getting to know the characters and the world I created.
- My outline had a few holes in it. My final book ended up with 32 chapters, not 25. One character didn’t die in the chapter he was supposed to, and one character showed up and then promptly died and I didn’t even see it coming!
After I finished the book, I put it away for a week or two before I started editing. I knew my characters better and there were a lot of things in the early chapters that didn’t seem to mesh with the people they turned out to be. So I had to make some changes, smooth out those arcs. Smoothing out those small arcs is more important in game and book stories than it is in movies, but I’ll talk more on that in the next entry.
Once I completed my first round of edits I gave the book to my early readers—three people I trust to give me honest, helpful feedback. Once all three of those get in, I’ll make the appropriate edits.
At that point you have a finished story, at least until an agent and editor gets a hold of it. Or you could skip those folks and self publish. Personally I think the expertise agents and editors have can help you take your story from good to great. If you are going to self publish find someone—pay them if you have to—that will ruthlessly edit your work. Not your mom or your best friend. Someone that has an eye for a good story and enough time to help you make yours shine.
I hope this was helpful. I don’t claim to be a master story teller, and like I said earlier there are exceptions to every rule. I’m sure there’s a blog post floating around out there from some other writer that contradicts everything I say. This is what works for me, and it might work for you too. In part two of my story series I’ll talk about how this structure fits into movies, games and books and give you some good and bad examples.