Tuesday, June 19

Jim Butcher: How To Write A Story

Jim Butcher is a writer I have a lot of respect for. Not only because I love his stories, but because time again he demonstrates a level of skill in his writing I can only aspire to. Thankfully, Mr. Butcher has been generous, penning many articles about the writing process and giving folks just starting out--or perhaps even well on their way!--many useful tips.

I'd like to talk a bit of about one of Mr. Butcher's articles, "Putting It All Together: How to get your story started," or "Organizing this frikin' mess."

Honestly, when I read this article I felt he was writing to me, this was just what I needed. So I thought I'd pass it along.

So, what are we waiting for? Let's write a story! Here's what we'll need:

1) A story question

2) A protagonist and antagonist

3) A turning point in the middle

4) A story climax

Sure, we need a lot of other things too, but this should help us get started.

1) The story question/The Story skeleton
 Jim Butcher writes:
The story skeleton (also called a story question) consists of a simple format:


For instance, look at Storm Front. (Yes, I'll use my own books as examples, because I'm just that way. ;) Also, I'm more familiar with them than I am with almost any other writer.) Storm Front's story question:

When a series of grisly supernatural murders tears through Chicago, wizard Harry Dresden sets out to find the killer. But will he succeed when he finds himself pitted against a dark wizard, a Warden of the White Council, a vicious gang war, and the Chicago Police Department?
Why does it seem so easy when he does it?

2) Protagonist and Antagonist
Jim Butcher writes:
Simply put, a story is a narrative description of a character (the protagonist/hero) struggling to attain an important goal. In general, the protagonist is opposed by another character (the antagonist/villain).

The protagonist sets out to achieve his goal and faces problems and opposition to his intentions along the way. His risk of loss increases as the narrative proceeds, and casts an element of doubt over whether or not the protagonist will attain his goal. Then, in a final confrontation of some sort (the climax), the protagonist either succeeds or fails, based upon his own choices and actions.
Jim Butcher gave an interview not long ago in which he spoke about how to build a villain, so I'm going to let you follow that link and not talk a whole lot about the antagonist. Kristen Lamb also has an excellent post about this: Spice Up Your Fiction–Simple Ways to Create Page-Turning Conflict.

3) The Great Swampy Middle: Turning point
Jim Butcher writes:
Here's the nutshell concept: Plan a great big freaking event for the end of the middle. You want it to be a big dramatic confrontation of whatever kind is appropriate to your genre. The fallout from your big bad Big Middle event should be what boots the book down the homestretch to reach the story's climax. Really lay out the fireworks. Hit the reader with everything you can. PLAN THE BIG MIDDLE EVENT. Then, as you work through the middle, WORK TO BUILD UP TO IT. Drop in the little hints, establish the proper props and motivations and such. Make sure that everything you do in the middle of the book is helping you build up to the BIG MIDDLE.

(I've used the Big Middle concept in EVERY book I've ever published. It works. It ain't broke. It ain't the only way to do the middle, either, but it's one way.)
I love Jim Butcher's name for the often amorphous middle part: The great swampy middle.

4) Story Climax
Jim Butcher writes:
A story climax is, in structure terms the ANSWER to the STORY QUESTION that we talked about earlier.

There, see how tidy that is? Simple! Again, not EASY, but simple!

For example, the overall Story Question of Lord of the Rings:

When Frodo Baggins inherits the Ring of Power from his Uncle Bilbo, HE SETS OUT TO DESTROY IT before its evil can wreak havoc upon Middle Earth. BUT WILL HE SUCCEED when the Dark Lord Sauron and every scary evil thing on the planet set forth to take the ring and use it to turn the entire world into the bad parts of New Jersey?

And the story climax of the Lord of the Rings:


See? ANYBODY could have written Lord of the Rings!

.  .  .  .

Remember earlier, how we talked about ways to hook your readers and get them emotionally involved in the story? Well, if we've done that right, then when you reach story's end, they are INVESTED in its outcome. They want to SEE what happens, preferably as vividly as they possibly can. By the time you've reached the end of a story, a good writer has got their readers on the edge of their seats, at 3:30 in the morning, and the pages are tearing every time they turn because the reader is so excited.

You've made an implicit promise by getting your reader so bound up in the story. You've /got/ to deliver on it, or that reader is going to freaking /hate/ you for doing that to them. They are gonna go away from that ride all hot and bothered and frustrated as hell. That's what catharsis is: the release of all that tension and sympathetic emotion that the reader has built up because of the writer's skill at weaving the story. Done right, your readers will cheer and cry and laugh out loud and dance around their living room.

EVERYTHING YOU DID IN YOUR BOOK LEADS UP TO THIS. Deliver on the climax or die as a working writer. Simple as that.
Okay? Got it? Ready to write that story? Well then, what are you waiting for!

Oh, and if you want to read some of the best writing on writing--that just so happens to be free--head on over to Jim Butcher's livejournal. All the excerpts on this page are from http://jimbutcher.livejournal.com/.


  1. Mr Butcher wrote about Story Questions (SQ) in his post Fundamentals--Story Skeletons http://jimbutcher.livejournal.com/1308.html, Wednesday, September 29, 2004. I first read about the SQ form in 1996 in Dwight V Swain, _Techniques of the Selling Writer_, The University of Oklahoma Press, 1965. http://www.amazon.com/Techniques-Selling-Writer-Dwight-Swain/dp/0806111917/ (Amazon sells the 1982 printing.) The SQ form Mr Butcher expounds in his blog is exactly the form I found in Mr Swain's book. On Mr Butcher's blog, I found no credit to Mr Swain or his book. Using the 'Find' function in FireFox on that blog page returned no hits on 'swain' or 'techniques of the selling writer'.

    I used the SQ form for years in my query and pitch letters to publishers, most of them before 2004. Mr Butcher's advice is well taken, but credit should go where credit is due: Dwight V Swain.

  2. I think there's a saying, everything is a footnote to Plato. I suspect that the idea of a story question is widespread.


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