Sunday, October 13

Finding the Theme of Your Story: The Vomit Draft

Finding the Theme of Your Story: The Vomit Draft


Hi! Welcome back. A short post today. I’m not being lazy, I’m working on three much longer ones, but that’s for next week. Today, I thought I might update one of my more popular older posts: 22 Ways to Tell a Great Story. But then I read tip number three and realized I needed to do a post about the virtues of writing a vomit draft/zero draft.

Three Reasons to Write a Vomit Draft


1. A vomit draft will show you what your story is about, it will reveal the theme


This list of 22 tips comes from the fabulously creative brain of Emma Coats who used to work for Pixar. A few of these points jumped out at me. They communicate a certain picture of how to create a story, one that I wholeheartedly and enthusiastically agree with. Here are the tweets in question:

“3. Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.”

Yes! (3) had me hopping up and down. I totally agree. This is what I’ve been saying about the advantages of a vomit draft or Zero Draft (I didn’t invent that name!).

(The Zero Draft: How To Beat Writer’s Block)

I keep a writing journal and I always write my first draft out longhand. There’s something about the motion of my hand skimming along the rough surface of the paper, the feeling of cradling the pen between my fingers, the feeling of the jaggedness of the pen’s contact with the page.

Anyway. That’s not what I want to talk about, what I want to talk about is ONE of the benefits of writing a vomit draft, one that Emma Coats touches on: It will help you find your theme.

Let me try to unpack that.

I remember watching one of John Green’s videos where he discussed the writing of his marvelous and immensely popular book: The Fault in Our Stars. As you probably know, this book reached the number one spot on the New York Times Bestseller list, as well as various others. It was also TIME Magazine’s number one fiction book pick for 2012. AND it was made into a movie. It’s safe to say it was successful. I think we’d all settle for that kind of response to our work!

I mention this because John Green said -- in a YouTube video I can’t find the link to! -- that essentially nothing in his first draft made it into his final draft. It was simply a place to start from, it was something that helped him figure out what his book was about.

2. Flawed Ideas on Paper Beat Perfect Ideas in Your Head

“11. Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.”
That’s really why I’m such a big fan of writing a vomit draft, it gives you space and time to flush your ideas out of your brain and get them out into the world where they can be examined, played with. You can’t improve nothing. Start with whatever scrawled idiotic nonsensical blather you can come up with and then make it better! (And, whatever you do, NEVER show anyone your vomit draft. I like to ritually burn mine.)

3. Endings Matter

“7. Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.”
Perhaps this doesn’t belong in an article about the advantages of writing a vomit draft, but IF you have a general idea about how your story ends -- you don’t have to! -- it helps. And of course your idea regarding how the story ends can change as you write. This is a vomit draft, that’s okay! There are no rules EXCEPT: just write.

And that’s it! Thanks for reading, and if you’d like to help keep this blog going head over to my Patreon page. You can donate as little as one dollar a month and have my eternal thanks as well as the knowledge that you are unconditionally awesome. Also, if you’d like to send me a story or a portion of your WIP for me to critique, head on over to my Patreon account or just contact me.

Articles you might like:


How Many Drafts Does It Take To Write A Novel?
The Zero Draft: How To Beat Writer’s Block
Pixar: 22 Ways To Tell A Great Story

Monday, October 7

Writing Prompt: Who, What, Where, When, and Why

Writing Prompt: Who, What, Where, When, and Why


When I’m putting together a writing prompt I think of the five Ws: Who, What, When, Where and Why.

Who


When you look at this beautiful, inspiring, photo created by JD Hancock ask yourself, who is the creature? I’ve named her Penny the Purple, but of course you can call her whatever you like. Is Penny sentient? Does she have thoughts and hopes and dreams and fears? Where does she come from? Who is Penny emotionally connected to? Who does she love? Who does she hate?

What


What is happening? Is Penny the Purple going into the refrigerator or is she leaving? What kind of fridge is it? Is it a normal fridge with milk and nutella inside or is it a time machine like Dr. Who’s TARDIS?

Where


“Where?” might seem like the least interesting question, but what if this scene were occurring back in the Cretaceous? Perhaps a time-travelling alien ripped a 1950s house out of its foundation and plopped it down in a field somewhere, sometime 100 million years ago and one of the creepy crawlies got in.

When


Is Penny the Purple crawling into the fridge to go to bed for the night, or is she emerging in the morning?

Why


This is the big question. Why is Penny creeping in/out of the fridge? This is about her goal, about what she wants. Is she hungry? Is she seeking a mate? Or perhaps she is an interdimensional hit person, slithering out from her interdimensional fridge?

Photo credit for "leftovers" goes to the incredibly awesome JD Hancock and his creative, beautiful photographs.

I'd love to see what you write! Please do leave a link in a comment. :-)

Saturday, October 5

5 Necessary Characters in a Romance Novel

5 Necessary Characters in a Romance Novel


Yesterday, I posted about the six scenes every romance novel needs. Today I'm going to write about the five characters every romance novel needs.

There are certain characters that show up in, for example, an adventure story. There is usually a love interest, a sidekick and a mentor (to name a few).

Similarly, in a romance story there are certain characters a writer needs to help keep the plot moving, to keep the tension escalating.

1. The Rival


If we just had the protagonist meet and fall in love with the antagonist, we wouldn't have much of a story! We need a third person to come in and break this up, to introduce conflict.

The rival is someone who is either in love with either the protagonist or antagonist or who pretends to be (perhaps they aren't truly in love, he just wants the protagonist's money, or he desires the influence such a union would bring). He or she is there to create discord, for reasons of his or her own.

I don't think that every romance novel must have a rival, I think there can be enough conflict without this, ALTHOUGH I do agree that practically every romance novel has a rival of some sort, but they can be a minor character.

2. Best Friend/Horrible Friend


Characters can be divided into ‘helpers’ and ‘harmers’ based on how they relate to the protagonist.

You want a character who is close to the protagonist and who encourages her to give the antagonist a second chance, this gives her a reason to tell her friend all the reasons why they could never be together. The friend can also comfort the protagonist when she is in relationship agony, give her a shoulder to cry on.

Similarly, you want someone in the protagonist’s life to say: He’s not good for you, kick him to the curb! Keep in mind, though, that the worst friend and the best friend can be the same person -- as so often happens in real life. Though often the character who tells the protagonist that the antagonist isn't any good for her is a family member, often a mother or sister.

3. The External Need


The External Need provides the impetus for the initial action, it could be -- often is -- what compels the protagonist to act, what initiates the Call to Adventure and brings the protagonist and antagonist together.

Granted, External Need itself isn’t a character, but a character can embody, can represent, the external need.

In jane Austen's, Pride and Prejudice, the external need is embodied in Elizabeth Bennet's father. Elizabeth and her sisters need to marry before their father dies. If they don’t, they will be penniless. That sets up the impetus, the external need for Elizabeth to find a husband. He is the ticking clock that drives the story. By the way, if you haven’t read Pride and Prejudice I would encourage you to! It is a lovely story.

Here’s another example: Let’s say our protagonist and her best friend are in a bar. The best friend bets the protagonist she can get the phone number of a cute guy, first. It’s a competition. That's a mild external need, but it sets up a reason for why our lovely protagonist would go in search of companionship.

4. Secret Keeper/Truth Teller


People lie to each other all the time and also to themselves.

I hope that’s not too negative! But, you know we do! I know I need to exercise more but I tell myself: You’re having a good writing day, you can exercise tomorrow. Instead, go for a long walk, that's almost the same thing. (It isn’t.)

In a lot of stories -- especially romance stories -- there is a secret keeper and a truth teller. These can be the same person.

Often this is the protagonist's best friend, but sometimes it is her worst enemy, sometimes it is the protagonist’s mentor.

You need someone your protagonist can tell her secrets to -- or thinks she can. You could add conflict to the story by having the friend betray the protagonist's trust. This could be intentional, coerced or a complete accident.

You also need someone who -- maybe around the All Hope is Lost point -- is going to tell the protagonist the truth. The protagonist -- like all of us, lies to herself about something -- something important.

(See my article: A Story Structure In Three Acts.)

The Truth Teller doesn’t destroy the protagonist's illusions lightly, but at some point she tells the protagonist the truth. And, as hurtful as that can be, it helps the protagonist get beyond the All Hope is Lost point. By the way, that's just an example, you could do this at any major turning point in the novel.

5. The Mentor


The Mentor is often someone who has memories of someone dear to the protagonist who has passed away.

For instance, and I KNOW I use this example more than I should, but in, Star Wars: A New Hope, Obi Wan Kenobi has memories of Luke’s father.

Memories are important, especially if they are shared. It is difficult to have a better mentor than Gandalf. And Gandalf shares many memories with Bilbo and Frodo, and -- because of his great age -- has memories of many who have passed away.

Because of this, the mentor can remind the protagonist who she really is and who she could be, the mentor can tell her how they have changed, both for better and worse.

Moral Progression


This isn't a character, but -- whatever kind of story this is -- the protag and antag need to become better people by the end of it. For example, at the beginning of Pride and Prejudice, the lovers both have pronounced flaws. Elizabeth was prejudiced and Darcy was prideful.

At the end of Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth was less prejudiced and Darcy was less prideful.

Simple, right? Simple is good! If a story is simple, clear, concise it is also easy to understand and read.

If you like my content please consider supporting me on my Patreon account. If you support the blog for just one dollar a month I'll send you my book, "The Structure of a Great Story."

BTW, I've combined this post and the previous one (The Structure of a Love Story) into an ebook: The Structure of a Love Story.

Thanks for reading and I'll talk to you again soon! :-)

A book you might be interested in:

How to Write a Murderously Good Mystery: The Major Characters, by Karen Woodward


Blog posts you might be interested in:

How To Write Characters Your Readers Will Love: Character Checklist


If you'd like to listen to this blog post, I've started reading them out and posting over on YouTube: Karen Woodward on YouTube

Friday, October 4

The Structure of a Love Story

The Structure of a Love Story


Love is love, but there tends to be a certain pattern to how it progresses, both in fiction and real life.

I’m going to go over three different kinds of love stories and pivot to examine six scenes any romance story must have.

Before I do this, though, I would like to thank Shawn Coyne and Tim Grahl for their podcast, the Story Grid, a lot of the material for this blog post came from these podcast episodes:

The Most Important Genre
How to Write a Great Love Story

Okay, let’s get into it:

What is a love story?


That’s an odd question, isn’t it. We know when we are in love. But when we create a character, it’s a good idea to break these things down.

Shawn Coyne defines it like this: The protagonist pursues or runs away from an intimate bond with another human being.

As for the goal of the protagonist, it is to have an intimate relationship with that person.

That may seem like it is too simple to be stated, but if you’re like me it's a big help to have everything spelled out, especially when I'm in the weeds.

The Lovers: Protagonist and Antagonist


Romance stories are different from all other kinds of stories.

Of course the protagonist DOES NOT LIKE the antagonist and vice versa. In fact, they quite often hate each other and want to kill each other.

In a romance, on the other hand, the protagonist and antagonist often end up married. (I know there's a joke in there, but I'm leaving it alone.) Even when the lovers are hating on each other, there is a bond of potential love between them. And that's not generally true of protagonists and antagonists.

But it makes sense. There is a symmetry between the protagonist's and antagonist's goals. Whatever the protagonist's goal is, she will not be able to accomplish it if the antagonist achieves his goal. Similarly, whatever the antagonist's goal is he will not be able to accomplish it if the protagonist achieves her goal. That's true for any kind of story.

In a romance, the protagonist's goal is to form a meaningful relationship with a particular person she is attracted to: the antagonist.

The antagonist is very attracted to the protagonist but for some reason he cannot return her affection. Perhaps he can't reciprocate because the antagonist is scared of commitment, or perhaps he is a crown prince and cannot marry a commoner, or perhaps because he is a reclusive billionaire and she wouldn't fit in, or perhaps he is a vampire and cannot form that kind bond with a human. Be creative.

The key thing is that, initially, there has to be some sort of absolute incompatibility. But, regardless, they are insanely attracted to each other.

When I first started looking at the structure of a romance story it was slightly off-putting to think of the lovers as protagonist and antagonist, but that's what they are.

Make it Clear Why the Protagonist and Antagonist Can't be Together


I've covered this, a bit, above, but it's worth repeating. Make it clear why the lovers, the protagonist and antagonist, can’t be together. So, for instance, in Beauty and the Beast -- one is a beautiful human, and one … well, isn’t human! But, hey, every relationship has its problems.

Also, as for any story, ask yourself:

What are the protagonist’s biggest strengths?
What are the protagonist’s biggest weaknesses?
What are the antagonist’s biggest strengths?
What are the antagonist’s biggest weaknesses?

Okay, so, let's look at the three kinds of love stories.

Three Kinds of Love Stories


For each of these stories, we need to answer a different question.

1. Obsession


Obsession stories are, I think, the least common kind of romance story.

Obsession stories are about DESIRE.

We’ve all known a relationship like this, one person is crazy in love with another, they are both attracted to each other, but they are just too different and the outcome is tragic.

Here’s the pattern:

Question: Will the protagonist and antagonist overcome their extreme differences and transform their relationship into a loving bond?

At the beginning of the story: The lovers despise each other. BUT the lovers are also profoundly attracted to each other. Each acknowledges that being together would be a bad idea.

At the end of the story: One or both of the lovers are dead.

Not my favorite type of story, but there it is!

2. Courtship


I love a good courtship story. Especially after a breakup. Some port, a little chocolate ...

It will come as no surprise to you that the overwhelming number of stories are courtship stories.

Courtship stories are about COMMITMENT.

Question: Will the protagonist and antagonist commit to each other?

At the beginning: The protagonist and antagonist haven’t made any commitment to each other.

At the end: The protagonist and antagonist are committed to each other and to their relationship.

3. Intimacy


In this kind of story, the protagonist and antagonist are already a couple at the beginning. One or both of them will be tempted to cheat on the other. There is a challenge here: will the couple remain faithful, will they remain together?

There are two concepts here: TRUTHFULNESS and FAITHFULNESS.

Question: Will the protagonist and antagonist remain faithful to each other?

At the beginning: The protagonist and antagonist are in a committed relationship. Perhaps this commitment has begun to wane because of whatever trials and tribulations they've gone through over the years.

At the end: The couple have re-committed to each other.

One more thing before we get started ...

The Protagonist's Secondary Arc


We know the protagonist's main desire (this will be her desire deep, deep down, although she will likely be in denial in the beginning) is to form a loving bond with the antagonist, but she needs a desire apart from this, she needs an arc apart from her connecting with the antagonist. And, of course, there has to be an obstacle to her completing this arc and achieving her goal.

Let me give you an example:

Don't laugh, but I personally think Die Hard is a romance story; specifically, an Intimacy story.

John McClane's main desire is to reunite with his estranged wife. It just so happens that at the beginning of his journey to do this, someone took his wife and all her coworkers hostage. At that point, McClane’s secondary desire becomes to defeat the terrorists. For most of the movie we are watching Willis's secondary arc unfolding.

As soon as the terrorists are defeated and his secondary goal is achieved, McClane goes right back to trying to reunite with his wife.

I would say this is a romance story because as a general rule the protagonist's highest level goal (in this case reuniting with his wife) sets the genre of the story. 

Anway! Now that we've got all that sorted out, let's look at the essential scenes in a romance novel.

The 6 Scenes All Romance Stories Need


Stories generally have three or four acts. That's not written in stone, they can have six or eight or how ever many you want -- it is just a matter of how you want to structure the events of the story. In what I write, below, I have a three act structure in mind. (see: A Story Structure In Three Acts)

1. The Protagonist and Antagonist Meet


Of course, right? This is a love story, if the lover’s never meet, there is no story.

When the protagonist and antagonist meet for the first time, it needs to be a BIG SCENE. You need to communicate to the reader the essence of each character, you need to communicate that the protagonist really quite likes the antagonist AND that she believes the two of them would absolutely, totally and in all other ways NEVER work as a couple.

Of course the reader knows it probably will work, but this should be a journey FROM lack of hope and lack of love TO hope reborn and love reborn.

But, naturally, before the protagonist and antagonist meet, you need to introduce the main character. And this really is the most important scene. Because, face it, if you don’t get your readers to connect with your protagonist they aren’t going to keep reading. In what follows I’m going to assume the protagonist is female and the antagonist is male. (And, yes, this may have something to do with the port and chocolate mentioned, above)

Unless you are writing a novel that is being told from two viewpoint characters, the protagonist is introduced at the beginning and then the antagonist is introduced at around between the 10% and 25% mark.

Things may have changed since the last time I read a romance novel -- I’m going to have to read another one soon. (I would love it if you would recommend your favorite romance novel!)

Onto the next point!

2. Confession of Love


Whenever anyone says, ‘I love you’ for the first time it is an intense moment. In a love story the person on the receiving end might be scared because they haven’t had the best experience with that sort of thing.

For example, I am a big fan of the TV show Big Bang Theory, Penny broke up with Leonard when he told her he loved her. She was scared because she wasn’t ready for commitment.

Or the thing that initially comes between protagonist and antagonist is, as I’ve talked about above, an inherent incompatibility. He is the crown prince, she is a penniless commoner -- and his mother hates her.

Or perhaps the thing that breaks them apart is the jealousy of one of the protagonist’s friends. The protagonist's bestie could lie to her and tell her that the antagonist is lying to her -- perhaps the best friend tells the protagonist that he has been unfaithful. Or perhaps the protagonist breaks up with the antagonist because she thinks that NOT being with him would be best for him.

By the way, this confession doesn't have to be, literally, "I love you!" It could be a look that the antagonist gives the protagonist, it could be him saying, "I really like you, I would like you to meet my family." And so on.

IN ANY CASE! We’ve come to the end of the first act. It’s time for the …

3. First Kiss


This usually occurs at the midpoint.

The protagonist and antagonist do not have to kiss here, but their relationship goes to the next level. Maybe they have an intense conversation, maybe they hold hands, maybe they kiss -- maybe they make love.  It all depends on the spiciness level of your story. Although, if they make love at this point, you have to figure out a way to kick things up a notch at the end.

4. The Lovers Breakup


This is the All Hope is Lost point (for more about this see A Four Act Structure). Something -- perhaps the protagonist's mean mother -- has forced them apart. There are two things here:

a. The thing that breaks the lovers apart is something neither of them has control over.

b. The breakup seems final.

For example, in the case of the prince and the pauper, the king has died. The prince must choose between taking the throne and his love for the protagonist, a penniless waitress. She sees that the situation is impossible and breaks up with him because she loves him and wants him to fulfill his destiny.

Another thing that is often done at this point is to have the breakup happen over a misunderstanding. For me, personally, this is less satisfying.

For example, the protagonist believes the antagonist has killed someone and, because she loves him and wants to save him, she takes the blame. Of course the antagonist didn’t commit the murder, but now he believes his one-true-love is a murderer and so he breaks up with her, possibly to protect her so she will receive less scrutiny.

At this point we are about 75% of the way through the story.

5. Proof of Love


At the beginning of the scene, both the lovers believe that any further contact between them is impossible. They can not spend their lives together.

But there is something each of them has overlooked. Or the antagonist does something exceptional to show the protagonist that she is mistaken, he really does love her. Or he discovers his love did not commit the murder he believed her guilty of, perhaps the true murderer was her oh-so-negative best friend. Perhaps the popper takes a bullet for the crown prince and this endears her to the citizens of his nation and so now they can get married.

In Die Hard John McClane saved his wife's life and the lives of many of her colleagues. And he did it because he was a good police officer and that was one of the things that had come between them.

Whatever the proof of love is, it needs to be something big, important. And it needs to be foreshadowed.

The Proof of Love often occurs about halfway through the third act.

6. The Lovers Reunite


This is the climax of the story.

As we have seen, the issue -- whatever it was -- that was keeping the lovers apart has been obliterated; it has gone away, it is no more.

This is a big scene. This is the payoff of all the struggle the lovers have been through. Emotionally, just as the All Hope is Lost point was the low point of of the journey this is the highpoint.

If anything is left between the lovers to be set right this is the place to do it. Have them forgive each other and do something to solidify their relationship, something that will make it stronger.

At the end of the story they are happier and more committed than ever.

That's it! By the way, I wrote about a lot of this in an earlier post, 6 Scenes Any Love Story Must Have.

If some of the information I have shared has been useful to you and you would like to support this blog I just opened up a Patreon account! If you support the blog for just one dollar a month I'll send you my book, "The Structure of a Great Story."

BTW, I've combined this post and the next one (5 Necessary Characters in a Romance Novel) into an ebook: The Structure of a Love Story.

Thanks for reading and I'll talk to you again, tomorrow! :-)


Wednesday, October 2

The Structure of Story

The Structure of Fiction


When I was a kid I had absolutely NO idea how to write an entertaining story. I wish someone had whispered the phrase “story arc” in my ear, it would at least have given me a place to start.

The Classic Character Arc: The Hero’s Journey


The Hero’s Journey is something we feel in our bones, it is the story of human civilization, but let’s make it explicit. What are its elements? We need:

A character, in a situation, with a well-defined problem, who tries to repeatedly solve it, but he fails and, in failing, makes the problem worse.

At the climax of the story, the hero makes a final attempt to achieve his/her goal. The result of this final attempt -- of the race to the final confrontation -- should unfold from the pattern of the hero’s victories and failures during the rest of the story.

If that sounds a bit mysterious, hang in there, I’ll unpack it.

BTW, that summary was from Philip Brewer’s post, Story Structure in Short Stories.

The Inward and Outward Journeys


Let’s break down the idea of a journey. There is usually an inward journey for the hero as well as an outward journey. 

In the movie, Edge of Tomorrow, William Cage (inner journey) went from cowardice to courage and (outer journey) from incompetence to mastery. These two journeys, these two paths, come together. Cage does something very brave just before the Final Confrontation and this gets him through the All Hope is Lost point. Mastering his cowardice was essential for Cage winning the final battle.

Again, more about this, below.

1. Opposites are good


This story structure comes to us by way of Larry Brooks's article: The Short Story on Structuring Your Short Story

Brooks writes:

"Like life, our stories always reside somewhere along that same continuum of set-up… shift… response… shift… attack… shift… resolution."

For instance, in the setup, the hero -- I like using the word ‘hero’ rather than protagonist -- is going through his normal everyday routines -- he struggles with the neighbourhood bully, he is in love with someone completely out of his league, he dreams of taking over the lucrative family business. That’s the hero's ordinary world.

Then something happens. There’s a shift. It could be that the protagonist gets a magical golden ticket, it could be that a young boy, sees a hologram and goes in search of an older, mysterious rather dodgy, character.

In Lord of the Rings, Gandalf came to Frodo, who had recently inherited the One Ring, and advised him to take it away from the shire in order to protect his community.

Okay. So. Another name for what just happened was the ‘Call to Adventure.’ After anything big happens in a story, there’s a response. In the case of Lord of the Rings, they are chased by the Black Riders.

But what I like about Larry Brook’s way of looking at things is that we really don’t need a lot of fancy names: the Ordinary World, Call to Adventure, and so on.

The key, the bedrock, is that something negative happens that derails the hero, and then something positive happens. That’s the pattern. The negative things that happen keep getting worse but the hero manages to keep going. Negative and positive. This back and forth keeps up until the hero and villain fight it out at the end and settle the matter once and for all.

Hook the reader early.


Plant a hook in the first couple of lines. Be bold. Here are a few first lines I think are marvelous:

“Halston thought the old man in the wheelchair looked sick, terrified, and ready to die. He had experience in seeing such things. Death was Halston's business; he had brought it to eighteen men and six women in his career as an independent hitter. He knew the death look.” (The Cat From Hell, Stephen King)
“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.” (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, J.K. Rowling)
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” (1984, George Orwell)

If you THINK you have a good hook for your novel, but you’re not sure, test it out on your friends -- or even random strangers in line with you at Starbucks -- tell them your hook and watch their face, that will tell you pretty much everything you need to know. Also, do they ask questions? Are they curious about what happens?

I think it’s a good idea to include your hero’s perspective in the hook, although, that said, only one of the stellar opening lines I included, above, say anything about the protagonist (The Cat from Hell). As always, it’s up to you. If it works, it works.

2. Introduce the elements of a central problem as soon as possible. 


We’ve given the reader a hook. They’ve read the first sentence or two, now we need to draw them into some conflict, some problem, that is directly related to, connected to, the central problem of the story. 

Also, we need to fulfill the promise of the hook, or at least give the reader enough information to make them curious enough to keep reading. 

Here are the first two sentences of “The Sorcerer’s Stone,” (I know I just shared the first sentence, above, but this is one of the best first paragraphs I’ve ever read):

“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.”

Now, I thought the first line was a very good hook, but just look at that second sentence! 

Right away, the reader knows there is going to be a lot that is strange and a lot that is mysterious occuring in the Dursley’s life and the Dursley’s are going to HATE it. I also knew right away that I would find the Dursley’s trials and tribulations humorous, because the Dursley’s seem like perfectly horrible people! (Which they are.)

3. The Ordinary World


Show your readers your character going through his/her daily routine, and show them one problem that he needs to overcome, one thing he/she is failing at.

For example, Harry Potter is failing to fit into the Dursley’s family, he is failing to find people who love him. Of course, it’s not his fault, the Dursley’s are despicable people, but, still, it’s a problem. Why is Harry failing to fit in? Well, he is the offspring of someone who could do magic and the Dursley’s are terrified of that. They are terrified their friends will find out they are related to people who can do magic. They are terrified of being rejected. So, the very thing the Dursley’s are terrified of, they do to Harry Potter. 

I have to be honest, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is one of my favorite stories! Both because it is very fun to read and because it is well structured as a story.

4. Try and Fail Cycles


Here’s the way I think about the construction of a story. The hero starts his journey in the ordinary world, going to his ordinary life. 

He is secretly in love with the lead cheerleader, but she doesn’t know he exists, he gets beaten up for his lunch money, etc. But then something happens that changes his situation. For Harry Potter it was a letter that invited him to attend a school for wizards. 

Generally, at around the 25% mark of a story the hero’s situation changes. Often when something big happens, there are a number of attempts to change but the first couple of attempts fail. For example, with Harry Potter, there were a LOT of attempts to deliver Harry’s acceptance letter to Hogwarts before he ultimately received it.

One movie that is great at demonstrating this is Raiders of the Lost Ark. Think of the scene where Indy is thrown into the Well of Souls, think of the number of times he tries to fight off the snakes and then his torch goes out, and then he tries to climb a statue, and then it tips over, etc. (I talk more about this in Parts of Story: Try-Fail Cycles.)

5. Midpoint confrontation


This is where the hero confronts the villain (or where the protagonist confronts the antagonist). Obviously, the protagonist can’t defeat the villain here, if he did then the story would be over! 

What generally happens is the hero learns that he’s wrong about something he believes about the world. He’s wrong about something important, essential, to the problem he is trying to solve. Further, he learns this because he confronts the antagonist. 

For example, in Edge of Tomorrow, William Cage, at the midpoint (Spoiler!) discovers that he has been tricked. He journeyed to a location because he thought he could fight the Omega (the Big Bad) but he was met by Alphas (run of the mill bad things). He discovered he was being tricked. That was an important piece of information that significantly changed Cage’s plans.

So, in summary, at the midpoint the hero fails in defeating the antagonist but he learns something vital from the confrontation.

6. The Hero’s Plan: The race to the final confrontation


At some point the hero comes up with a plan. Generally this is somewhere around the 75% mark. Generally, there is some sort of group scene around this point (your main characters meet in a bar, restaurant, etc), the hero has a touching bonding moment with his band of travellers.

Make sure the stakes are clear. What could the hero lose? What would the hero gain?

7. Something goes wrong: try and fail cycle.


The hero is racing toward the final confrontation, but of course something goes wrong. 

The hero’s plan was good, plausible, perhaps brilliant, but something went wrong and it failed. 

This is a try, fail cycle. The hero fails, then he tries something new. Then he fails. Then he tries something else. Then he fails. 

Then, facing certain death, he tries a new thing in desperation, believing that if it works he will die but at least the antagonist will be eliminated. And that is a good thing because it means his family and friends will be safe.

And it works.

Obviously this is difficult to set up. In the movie, Edge of Tomorrow, the protagonist, Cage, was introduced as a coward -- that is what he needs to overcome -- so when the final confrontation happens we need Cage to be prepared to give up his own life for the people in his community, for humanity. And he does.

8. All Hope is Lost


Toward the end of the Try and Fail cycle I just spoke about, the hero will experience an ultimate setback. They will fail, but they will fail in such a way that it seems there is no way back. At this point, often, the A-story (the outer journey) and the B-story (the inner journey) come together. Further, these threads come together in such a way that the hero sees the way out, the way to POSSIBLY win the confrontation.

9. Resolution


Either the hero defeats the villain or not. In popular fiction, generally, he does. And ideally, it should be done cleverly. If you can surprise the reader here, but in a way that makes sense and grows from the hero’s challenges, that is the stuff of which great stories are made.

There’s a reason why stories like Star Wars: A New Hope, Edge of Tomorrow and Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark were box office favorites.

I urge you to take a peek at The Structure of A Short Story by Sarah A. Holt, it’s an older post, but it’s much shorter than mine and she has a good sense of humor.

BTW, I’ve begun reading my posts over at YouTube, so if you would rather listen to this, here is the url: Structure of Fiction.