Showing posts with label The Starburst Method. Show all posts
Showing posts with label The Starburst Method. Show all posts

Tuesday, January 15

The Starburst Method: Summarizing Your Story In One Sentence

The Starburst Method: Summarizing Your Story In One Sentence

This is the final chapter in The Starburst Method. It has been quite a journey!

Our goal has been to work from an initial concept to produce a one sentence description that communicates who the protagonist is, what she wants, as well as the central conflict of the story.

For some reason this has been the most difficult of all the posts to write, but the idea here is simple enough. We're going to take the five paragraphs we crafted over the last few days, take the ideas we developed, and use those ideas to craft one gloriously concise sentence that describes the essential concepts in our story. (For an earlier discussion of this see: The Structure Of Short Stories: The Elevator Pitch Version)

Last time, in The Starburst Method: The Hero's Journey, Part 3, I gave an example of the hero's journey using The Firm as an example. Here I'll extend that example and summarize it using one sentence.

A One Sentence Summary Of The Firm

Mitch McDeere is a smart, motivated, young lawyer living in Boston. But when he gets a job with a group of crooked lawyers, Mitch must thread his way between the dual threats of the FBI and the mob in order to preserve both his life and his law degree.
Here's how I came by this (by the way, this is all thanks to Nathan Bransford):
[protagonist name] is a [description of protagonist] living in [setting]. But when [complicating incident], [protagonist name] must [protagonist's quest] and [verb] [villain] in order to [protagonist's goal]. (Query Letter Mad Lib)
Let's look at one more example, this time using The Matrix.

A One Sentence Summary Of The Matrix

1. Protagonist's name:

2. Description of protagonist:
Office worker by day, hacker by night

3. Setting:
The Matrix, which appears to be North America in the late 1990s. Neo senses some of this, he wants to know the truth, but has trouble believing.

4. Protagonist's goal:
To expose the Matrix and defeat the machines.

5. Antagonist's name:
The machines. The main minion of the machines: Agent Smith

6. Description of antagonist:
Agents are protectors/servants of the machines that built the matrix and enslaved the human race.

7: Antagonist's goal:
To protect the matrix.

Notice some of my answers are long and rambling, that's okay. We're still at the brainstorming stage. Now we take this information and plug it into our formula:
Neo is an office worker by day, hacker by night, who hates his job and is looking for something more: The Truth. When Trinity, an infamous hacker, introduces Neo to Morpheus and the truth of human existence Neo must decide whether to embrace the bitter pill of truth or go back to the comfortable reality created by the machines who ensnared humanity. 
The way I've written this up The Matrix looks like a Character Story. At the beginning we have a character, Thomas Anderson, who is dissatisfied with his role in society and at the end our character, Neo, has found a new role: he is The One.

This Character Story is also, to a lesser degree, a Milieu Story as well as a love story. The other stories are either closed out first or at the same time as the Character Story.

Getting Our Description Down To One Sentence

Now let's be brutal and get our description down to one sentence. No rambling allowed!

What is the main element? Since this is a Character Story the main element is that the protagonist, Thomas Anderson, is dissatisfied with his role in society and, at the end, succeeds in changing it.

Since I don't want to give any spoilers--this is the description you'd give to anyone who asked what your book is about; telling them the ending wouldn't be friendly--I'm not going to talk about the ending.

I'm sure you could do better but here's what I came up with.

My one sentence summary of The Matrix:

When Thomas Anderson, an office worker by day and rebel by night, meets infamous hacker Trinity and learns the true nature of reality--the we are all trapped in an illusion--he wants to free himself and others, but can he defeat the machines?
If I thought this was a Milieu Story I would have summarized the movie this way:
When Thomas Anderson discovers the strange new world of the Matrix he learns humanity has been enslaved by intelligent machines and he is the only one who can save the world.
You know what? I like the second way better! Even though I don't think this is a Milieu Story, that's the version I'd tell folks. Besides, the goal is to craft a single sentence that describes the story and both of the above give one an idea of the main theme of the Matrix: The One--Neo--will save humanity from the machines and the prison they have created for us.

Want to try summarizing your work in progress? Please do! Why not share it in the comments.

Other articles you might like:

- F. Scott Fitzgerald On The Price Of Being A Great Writer
- Using Public Domain Characters In Your Stories
- Link Mashup: The Million Follower Fallacy, Showing Not Telling, Goals Not Dreams

Photo credit: "Shanghai Rollercoaster." by @yakobusan Jakob Montrasio 孟亚柯 under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Wednesday, January 9

Chuck Wendig On Writing: How He Writes A Novel

Chuck Wendig On Writing: How He Writes A Novel

The Terrible Mind of Chuck Wendig

Late yesterday I wrote a short post about Chuck Wendig's fun writing challenge and someone joked I should write about how he works his writerly magic.

I LOL'd back and didn't think much more of it until I saw Chuck had written an article on editing. Oh! I thought. This will be interesting. THEN I found out he'd written about ... drum roll ... how he writes a novel!

It was like the sky split open and trumpets sounded. How could I not write about that?

(All quotations, unless stated otherwise, are from Chuck's blog post: How Chuck Wendig Writes A Novel.)

1. The Right Idea

Every story begins with an idea. But not just any idea. It has to be the right idea.

How do you know which one is right?

Chuck puts his ideas through a kind of interrogation. I'm not sure what he does with the ones that don't make it and I'm sure it's better that way.

The right idea will be:
a) interesting to me beyond the moment in which they are conceived
b) potentially interesting to other humans who are not me
c) potentially interesting to the giant amorphous blob known as the “publishing industry”
d) about a character in a world and not just a world
e) and de actionable, meaning, an idea that suggests a book I’m actually capable of writing
The idea that makes it through the final inerview goes on Chuck's "idea list". He writes:
[L]ater I dump it into a file I’ve created that’s meant to be a storehouse of such potential ideas. For the record, this dump file now looks like the warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Shelves and shelves of crates and boxes, each a mystery container whose story remains untold.
If I could make a humble suggestion: Dropbox and Google Drive are your friends.

If you keep your important lists in the cloud, you're guaranteed to have an updated version of the lists on your computer(s) as well as in the cloud (wherever that is) so even if the worst happens and all your electronic devises spontaneously combust you'll still have your ideas, your stories and your Excel worksheets.

2. Barf Up A Blob Of Incoherent Thoughts

I love Chuck's headings. I mean, right off, you knew that was his, right?

Anyway, the second step is to get your thoughts out of your head and out into the world: put them on a sheet of paper, virtual paper, spreadsheet programs, mind-maps, whatever works for you. As Chuck writes:
The notes taken at this stage are almost stream-of-consciousness. Sentence fragments, mis-spelled words, grocery list thoughts interspersed in the middle, whatever. It’s just to ruminate on the idea. And it’s also to test the idea in a way. Is there more here than than initial idea? A great many ideas are dead seeds planned in fallow ground — they won’t grow a good goddamn thing. So, this stage of the game is very much about seeing if this thing has legs. Will it walk? Can it run?

3. Get To Know Your Characters

Chuck calls characters "The way through every story". You need to know who a character is in the same way you need to know what the story is about (we'll get to that in a moment).

a. Name your characters

Names have power. I find it difficult to write about a character before I have some idea what her first name is. Last names are the trickiest, often they won't come to me until I'm working on my second or third draft.

Naming resources:
- Websites for baby names
- Google Map street names
- Scrivener
- US census data
- Movie credits
- The names of characters from other books, mixed and matched.

b. Take your characters out for dinner and get to know them

For each character ask:
- What are his wants? (Both conscious wants and unconscious.)
- What are his needs?
- What are his fears?
- Why does he need to keep going?
- What goal will drive him as he progresses through the story?
- What obstacles are in his path? Which obstacles will prevent him from reaching his goal?

Some of these obstacles MUST be bound up with what the character fears.

c. Create a simple character arc: Beginning, middle, end

Chuck writes:
Finally, I do a little three-beat character arc for the character. Three words or sentences that are meant to indicate the state of the character across the story — beginning, middle, and end.

Poor cat down on his luck wants to see a change in this country –> elected president, way over his kitty head –> once again a poor cat but now knows the intimate details of the democratic process and oh did I mention he nuked the middle of our own country into oblivion.

d. The test: Are your characters compelling?

Some writers want their characters to be likable. Chuck doesn't. He wants characters that are interesting, readable and, above all, compelling.

Why do you find your character compelling? What are they good at? What have they failed at? What events have made them who they are?

4. Ask The Foundational Question: What Is Your Story About?

Answering this question will help you begin to not only lay the foundation of your story, but it will also test your story idea to make sure it's really one you want to spend months of your life with.

Here is the big question:

What is your story about?

I love examples, don't you? So, before we go any further, here are examples of what Chuck means when he asks: What is your story about?
“This is about how you can’t escape your past.”
“This is about just how fucked up people can be.”
“This is about how the education system fails its kids by adhering to antiquated ideals and stats that don’t mean anything and notions of ‘learning’ that remain separate from notions of ‘humanity.’”
“This is about the coming of age of MONKEY SQUID DEATH WOMBAT. Raaaaar!”
I tend to think of stuff like this as THEME. Just the other day someone asked whether he should know the theme of his story before he started to write or if it could be worked into the story later.

If I remember what he wrote in On Writing, Stephen King often doesn't know what his story is about until the second draft. The theme is there, but he hasn't discovered it yet.

Chuck Wendig is definitely a know your theme first kinda guy and I do see his point.

Why you want to know what your story is about before you begin writing

In his article Before You Start Writing, Ask: “What Is This About?”Chuck points out that knowing your theme before you start writing has a number of benefits.

i. It will tell you why you are writing this story

Answering the question, What is this story about?, will tell you what you want to say.

In order for the story to work you need to write about something more than what interests you, you need to write about what compels you, what haunts you.

ii. Binds your story elements together

Knowing what the story is about will tell you why you're writing it and THAT is the mortar which binds your story elements together. Chuck writes:

Point is, the web, the structure, the whole recipe comes together when you have this answer. You can look at the whole picture, nod, and just say, “Ohhhh.”

iii. Gives you a thread

Knowing what your story is about is like being handed a magical thread that will help you find the way through the labyrinth of your story. It will help you decide what to do.

Just as in a labrynth you need to decide, "Do I go right, left or straight?" when you write you're going to be presented with choices. How does a particular character react to such-and-such? How does she respond when she fails to achieve one of her goals?

Knowing what the story is about will help you understand what needs to happen next, where to turn, how to proceed.

iv. The test: How you know if you've found out what your story is about

If the answer to, "What is your story about?" doesn't get you excited, if it doesn't connect with you emotionally, then that's not your answer. Keep excavating. Chuck writes:

If you don’t love the answer, and that answer doesn’t get you all jizzity-jazzed about the process of writing this thing, then ... that’s not your answer. The answer needs to engage you. It needs to excite you. It needs to give you purpose and be the lash on your ass-cheeks to spur you forward. (Before You Start Writing, Ask: “What Is This About?”)
Now let's move on to talk about how we can discover what our story is about, how we can discover our story's theme.

5. The Marvels Of Mind-Mapping

At this point we've got some character sketches and, maybe, a vague idea of what our theme is but nothing we can pin down. What we need is a much clearer idea of what brings all these disparate elements together. We need a handle on what our story is about. What is its theme?

We need to create a mind-map.

What the heck is a mind-map?

Chuck has written an excellent article on this: Who The Hell Are These People? Mind-Mapping Your Story’s Characters. In that article he has embedded an image of a mind-map he created. You can get there through Chuck's article or you can click here. Here's how Wikipedia describes a mind-map:
A mind map is a diagram used to visually outline information. A mind map is often created around a single word or text, placed in the center, to which associated ideas, words and concepts are added. Major categories radiate from a central node, and lesser categories are sub-branches of larger branches. Categories can represent words, ideas, tasks, or other items related to a central key word or idea. (Mind map)

Why use a mind-map?

- It's easy, fun, gives you a lot of information at a glance.
- It is simple to do and can be done anywhere (you can do it on your smartphone).
- It helps you explore character without locking you into anything. It doesn't feel as serious, as written in stone, as when you're sitting at your desk typing away.
- It can help you spot themes, a deeper storyline.

It's this last point I want to spend a moment on. Chuck writes:
I was going through the characters [using a mind-map], and I started to see some similar elements pop up: elements of legacy, of family, of blood. And I was like, holy shit, I just figured out what this whole story’s *about.* I mean, I had the story in mind. I know a rough sequence of events for the plot. But I didn’t really have a deeper throughline.

And in the mind-map, the character’s exposed themselves (tee-hee) and showed me the theme of the piece.

Just through the act of dicking around with fun little word bubbles and connective tissue, I suddenly stumbled upon one of my great unanswered questions, a question I didn’t think I’d answer so soon.

That’s the joy of the preparation process. It’s like preliminary archaeology. You dig and dig and uncover things you never expected to find. (Who The Hell Are These People? Mind-Mapping Your Story’s Characters)
Sounds great!

I've never used a mind-map before but after reading Chuck's articles I'm going to give it a try.

One of the benefits of using a mind-map is that you can get an app for your phone and do it anywhere. Chuck even recommends an app: SimpleMind.

6. Write A Pitch

I was excited when I read this, because it's what I've been saying in my Starburst Series! 

a. Write a logline/elevator pitch

Sum your entire novel up in a single sentence. Chuck uses his 'cat for president' story idea as an example:
A cat is elevated from poverty and is elected president only to learn that cats shouldn’t ever serve in public office because cats are assholes.

b. Write a blurb

Write a longer pitch of under 500 words. Basically you want a longer version of the blurb for the back cover of your book without giving spoilers. But this should be easy since you don't know exactly what's going to happen.

7. Build A World, But Be Like Scrooge

Chuck cautions that writers should do only as much work as you have to in order to begin writing. You don't know what material is going to get cut so only do the bare minimum.

For instance, in one story I'm working on I knew I needed a slow moving mammal but I didn't know what kind would fit so I just wrote <slow moving mammal> in my first draft and moved on.

8. Know Your Beginning And Your End

Figure out how your story begins as well as how it ends. Chuck writes:
Here’s why I like to have the beginning and the ending in mind: because as I write, my eventual outline will fail me. It just will. No plan survives contact with the enemy and eventually I’ll be somewhere in the middle of the book, spinning wildly in the swampy mire of my own fiction not sure exactly what to do next. And when that happens I will look to the ending and I will say, “I need to go there,” and then I will march the story toward that point and eventually get the outline (which by now may require modification) back on track.

Make sure there is an element that links your beginning and your ending

This element could be elemental, thematic or physical. For instance,
In the Mookie Pearl short story, “Charcuterie,” it begins and ends with him pulling up at the bar with his friend and boss, Werth.

9. Outline

Chuck Wendig uses a four act structure. Christopher Vogler uses four as well but Michael Hauge uses three. TV has gone to a six act structure. It's up to you, whatever works.

Write the key scenes first

Chuck figures out what needs to happen in the story (something which is much easier to do if you have an ending!) and then writes those key scenes.

Write the dramatic scenes second

Also, there may be a few different kinds of scenes you want to enclude such as a:

- reversal of fortune
- a key betrayal
- a battle scene
- a moment of shock or, as Chuck puts it:
I’m also always on the look out for at least one HOLY SHIT NO HE DIDN’T moment — some jaw-dropping pants-crapping event or revelation in the narrative that sticks you in the ribs with a story shiv. I like those moments. One of my favorite things is obliterating reader expectations in one fell swoop.

10. Let It Sit

At this point you've got a fat-ish folder, either physical or electronic, and you may need to let the story sit for a bit before you nail yourself to your chair and write it.

11. Spreadsheets Are Your Friends

Chuck Wendig keeps his writing schedule in an Excel spreadsheet. He writes:
One spreadsheet I particularly require is the one that keeps all my writing schedule on it. I don’t use a calendar — I use Excel. I have the whole year planned out in terms of when my deadlines are and where the books slot in. (Then I also identify gaps and, ideally, figure out how to best use those gaps.)
Mark down when your writing projects need to be completed then write down how much you know you can finish per day (underestimate a little to give yourself a bit of wiggle room) and figure out how much time you'll need to complete each one.

For me, it's not so much the writing that takes time, it's the editing. My rule of thumb is that for every hour writing I reserve 4 hours for editing. (Of course I never edit what I just wrote! Gah! The very thought burns!) I'm learning--or trying to learn--how to juggle multiple projects at different stages of completion.

Also, on your spreadsheet keep track of both your projected and your actual word count.

12. Write

Chuck writes:
I write. I write with my head down. I write linearly, first page to the last page. I write without listening to the doubting voice that tells me I’m a total asshole for even trying this. I write without regard to safety or sanity. I write with the freedom to suck and the hope that I don’t. I write to finish the shit that I started.

That's (basically) it! Chuck Wendig has written another article on how he edits his stories and you can find that here: How Chuck Wendig Edits A Novel.

This was a gargantuan article! Sorry about that. I try to keep my blog posts to 1,000 words or less but I'm in the process of writing three different series and I didn't want to add a fourth, so I wanted to get this post done today.

I'll be briefer tomorrow. :-)

Other (much shorter!) articles you might like:

- Using Excel To Outline Your NaNoWriMo Novel: Defeating the sprawl
- Mary Robinette Kowal and The Mysteries of Outlining
- The Starburst Method of Writing

Photo credit: "Free Old Converse All Stars Creative Commons" by Pink Sherbet Photography under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Tuesday, January 8

The Starburst Method: The Hero's Journey, Part 3

 The Starburst Method: The Hero's Journey, Part 3

Today I'm going to do what I promised yesterday and step us through the rest of our five paragraph summary of the journey of your Hero and his band of intrepid adventurers.

Below are links to the previous articles in this series, something I'm calling The Starburst Method, though I've been thinking of changing the name to something more descriptive. The Sculpting Method or perhaps The Diamond Method.

Since this article is a continuation of the last two (The Starburst Method: The Hero's Journey), you may want to give them a quick read.

1. The Starburst Method: What It Is And What It Can Do
This gives a roadmap of where we're going and why we want to get there.

2. The Starburst Method: Discovering Your Characters 
We begin to get to know our characters, what they want, what they fear, what they do for a living, what their dreams are and, most importantly, what their goal is.

3. The Starburst Method: The Hero's Journey, Part 1
Here we go deeper into our characters and start transforming our knowledge into a narrative. We hone what we know about our characters until it can be expressed in five paragraphs that summarize our hero's journey.

4. The Starburst Method: The Hero's Journey, Part 2
A continuation of the ideas in (3).

Let's dive right in!

4. It All Falls Apart

Here we meet our antagonist.

Of course your antagonist has been around, in story terms, for some time. Probably ever since you entered the Special World. In fact, he was likely one of the first people your hero met, or heard about, when he entered the Special World. This is just the first time we're meeting him in our summary of your hero's journey.

Also, when I say it all falls apart I'm not talking about The Dark Night of the Soul or The All Hope Is Lost point that usually occurs about 3/4 of the way through a story. The 'All Hope is Lost' point occurs when the hero and his intrepid band of adventurers lumber up to the climax of the story and their Big Plan falls apart.

No, what I'm talking about here is the first sign of trouble. The first real resistance they face in the Special World. (Some would also call this a pinch point.)

For instance, in The Firm everything seems to be going great--Mitch McDeere, the protagonist, has a nice house, great car, awesome paycheck and he's on the fast track to becoming partner--then he discovers that the law firm he works for, Bendini Lamert & Locke, is a front for organized crime and he's in it up to his eyeballs.

At that moment Mitch's initial goal of becoming a wealthy lawyer dissolves and he gets his true goal, the Story Goal: Get away from the mob with his licence to practise law, and his marriage, intact.

This leads us to ...

5. The Challenge

How is our intrepid adventurer going to thwart the machinations of the antagonist? How is your hero going to get himself, and his friends, out of this big fat mess?

That's the story goal, the challenge. That's what we want to read about and it will form the heart of your story. (I feel as though there should be a drum roll at this point because, in a way, this is what the entire series has been leading up to.)

Yes, there will be hurdles the hero must jump, dangers to avoid, tests to pass--although he should fail at least one, and fail spectacularly--and so on, but it's all because of the hero's goal and the mess he's gotten himself and his friends into.

And why has he gotten himself into that mess? Because of who he is, because of what he wants, because of his Dream and, especially, his Goal.

An Example: The Firm

Yesterday I gave you an example of a five paragraph summary based on Star Wars IV: A New Hope, today I'll give you another. This one is based on The Firm.
1. Ordinary world

Mitch McDeere worked hard to get top grades at Harvard Law School because he never wanted to be poor again.

2. Characters and setting

Mitch would never have succeeded without the love and support of his beautiful wife Abby who, more than anything, wants him to stop running and accept who he is, and to accept his brother, even though his family is a reminder of what Mitch is running from: the shame of growing up in a trailer park, poor, raised by a mother who didn't really care about him.

3. Entering the special world 

When the lawyers from Bendini, Lambert & Locke offer Mitch more money than any other law firm it is a dream come true and he and Abby move into their brand new house, courtesy of the firm.

4. It all falls apart

Everything is great until Mitch learns about the secret files and discovers Bendini, Lambert & Locke is just a front for organized crime. As the FBI closes in on Mitch, threatening him with prison, the mob gets suspicious.

5. The challenge for the protagonist

Mitch has to rely on his wits to save himself and Abby. But is he up to the challenge?
By the way, I took that example from an earlier post I wrote: The Structure Of Short Stories: The Elevator Pitch Version.

What you have at this point--a five paragraph story summary--can form the skeleton of your story. We've met the main characters, or at least their archetypes. They need fleshing out and, as a result, your story skeleton will grow, change, bend, but as long as it remains roughly 'story shaped' (i.e., focused on the hero's goal, the hero's journey) it's all good.

To Be Continued

In our next and final section we'll look at condensing your story down into one or two sentences.

This is handy for two reasons:

a) You'll be able to determine what is really truely important in your story, and
b) If you ever have to write a pitch, you'll have your tag-line ready!

At this point, with your five point summary concluded, you already have a blurb for your book or the start of your pitch.

Update: Here is a link to the final installment of this series: The Starburst Method: Summarizing Your Story In One Sentence

Other links you might like:

- How To Format A Word Document For Uploading To Amazon: MS Word Styles
- The Starburst Method: The Hero's Journey, Part 2
- The Magic Of Stephen King: How To Write Compelling Characters & Great Openings

Photo credit: "Fire Storm" by JD Hancock under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Wednesday, January 2

The Starburst Method: What It Is And What It Can Do

The Starburst Method: Introduction

Have you ever wanted to write a story, and you had the beginning of an idea, but you didn't know who the antagonist was or what your protagonist wanted, what her goal was?

I've been in that place a few times and it's not fun. The good news is that the more one writes the easier it gets but that is small comfort in the beginning.

The Goal: A One Sentence Summary

I'm going to try something. I'm going to try writing a series of three or four articles, intended for the beginning writer, filled with exercises and pointers to help someone take the raw clay of his imagination and shape it until not only do you know what your story elements are, but you have written a five paragraph, then a one paragraph, then a one sentence summary of your piece.

At least, that's the plan! I hope you folks give me feedback and share your experiences with me along the way.

At the end of this process you won't know everything about the story incubating inside you (why did I just think of the movie Alien? ;), but you'll know the main things:

What We Need To Find Out:

1. Who your protagonist is.
2. What your protagonist wants.
3. What your protagonist's special ability is.
4. What your protagonist's weakness is .

5. Who your antagonist is.
6. What your antagonist wants.
7. What your antagonist's special ability is.
8. What your antagonist's weakness is.

9. What the states are/the cost of failure.

Numbers 2 and 6 must be such that if one goal is achieved the other cannot be. Either the antagonist gets their way and the protagonist loses big time or vice versa.

Ready? Let's get started!

The Starburst Method

We've each developed our own way of writing. For every 10 writers there are 11 methods! No one method is better than any other since the ultimate test is whether a method works for you. Does it help you write? Does it improve either the quality or speed of your work? If so, great!

This method might suit you, and it might not, but if you don't try it out you'll never know.

The Basic Idea: The One Sentence Description

Here's the basic goal: You will work from an initial concept to produce a one sentence description that communicates who the protagonist is, what she wants, as well as the central conflict of your story.

Why one sentence?

There are a number of reasons why you would want to refine and condense your idea until it can be expressed in one eloquent sentence.

1. Keeps you on track

It's easy to start off writing one story and end up writing a completely different one. Many, many, years ago I started off with a female protagonist who had psychic powers and ended up in the wild west with a male protagonist named Bronco Bill. Yes, that's extreme, but it's easy to wander off topic.

Here's a less extreme example: if you don't know where you want to go, what your story is about, you may waste your valuable time creating scenes that don't push the story forward.

Of course an outline helps (see: Mary Robinette Kowal and The Mysteries of Outlining) but condensing your idea down to a one-liner will encourage you to figure out the main themes of your story now--before you spend 200 pages writing a gritty urban fantasy only to discover the romance between your protagonist and her handsome helper is the real story you want to tell.

Trust me, rewrites aren't fun. The fewer you have to do the better.

2. Helps you write your pitch

Traditional Publishing
If you plan to submit your story to a traditional publisher you'll need to write a query letter and as part of that letter you'll have to tell the editor/agent/publisher what your story is about in approximately 300 words or less.

That's not easy. I know writers who think writing a query letter is more difficult than a novel! But when you know the core elements of your story your pitch will be much easier to write.

Don't worry if at the moment you don't have a clear idea of the elements of your story. We'll talk about that more in the next part of this series.

Independent Publishing
By the way, crafting a summary of your story is useful even for independent writers because you will need to create a blurb for your book as well as a description for the various online stores your book will be sold in. I find it helps to have a one sentence summary or tag line (also known as a one-liner), a two sentence summary, a summary about a paragraph long, and a longer summary of about five paragraphs suitable for posting in an online bookstore.

3. Makes you look professional

One question everyone is going to ask you the moment after they hear you're writing a story is: What's your story about?

The first time I was asked this I was completely unprepared and had the deer-in-the-headlights response: my eyes swallowed my face and I promptly forgot my name, let alone what my story was about. I think I stammered something like, "Well, it's about a girl."

Nice. Great description. Not. I'm sure the person walked away shaking their head thinking: She's a writer?

So, have your one sentence description memorized and rather than leave friends and family with the vague dread that they'll be asked to read the literary equivalent of nails on a chalkboard, be kind. Let them be proud of you and wow them with a snappy, concise, description.

Ready, Set, Write!

Ready to start? Great! Tomorrow we'll begin taking our relatively formless idea and molding it until it has the form of a story.

Update: Here is a link to the next installment in the series: The Starburst Method: Discovering Your Characters.

If you want to follow along with these posts and you don't already have an idea for a story, here are a couple of writing prompts that might help you get started:

A Writing Prompt: The Girl In A Mask
A Writing Prompt: The Thing was close
Writing Prompts: Defeat Writer's Block And Generate Ideas (This post contains links to several sites that list various writing prompts.)

Note: This series of three or four articles will draw material from a series I published on this blog last year, The Starburst Method. The present series of articles will focus on the first three steps of the Startburst Method and include a lot of new material. I intend to redo all of the posts in The Starburst Method and then publish them as an electronic book.


What is your idea for a story? How do you generate ideas?

Other links you might like:

- The Magic Of Stephen King: An Analysis Of The Opening Paragraphs Of The Dead Zone
- Scene Goals: What Do Your Characters Want, Why Do They Want It, How Do They Get it?
- How To Sell Books Without Using Amazon KDP Select

Photo credit: "Droplets on dawn nastursians" by Lenny Montana under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Thursday, March 15

Writing: The Starburst Method, Part 2

Yesterday (see Writing: The Starburst Method, Part 1) we looked at crafting a sentence that summarizes your story and which has all the elements of your story in it, only compressed. Today we are going to expand that sentence into five sentences which embody the 3-act structure of a play.

2. Expand your one sentence into a five sentence paragraph.
There are two provisos here:

2.1. Take NO MORE than an hour to do this.
2.2. Have your paragraph mirror the 3-act structure of a play.

The 3-Act Structure of a Play
Let's discuss the 3-act structure of a play. Briefly, in the first act the reader is introduced to the world of the story and the characters who populate it, especially the main character, or protagonist. In the second act, or at the very end of the first act, the protagonist encounters an obstacle they must overcome and in the third act the protagonist overcomes the obstacle and enjoys their reward.
Of course that is a stark oversimplification – for starters, there can be, and often is, more than one main character and he or she does not always overcome their obstacle. But you get the idea.

There are many excellent books on screenwriting that discuss the three act structure of a play (and it isn't always three acts). Here are two I have read and enjoyed:

Save The Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You'll Ever Need

The Writers Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, 3rd Edition

There are oodles of screenwriting books on the market, but these are two that I've read and can recommend. The Writers Journey is perhaps a bit more tailored toward novel and short story writers as opposed to screenwriters.

So, let's begin! Here, again, is the sentence I put together in the first step:

The death of a wealthy English archeologist sparks talk of a curse when two other people involved with the expedition die from seemingly unrelated causes.

Here's my first attempt at expanding my sentence into a paragraph:
A wealthy English aristocrat dies of a heartattack after breaking the seal on the tomb of a long-dead Egyptian pharaoh. The aristocrat's death is quickly followed by the death of two of the men who were with him when he broke the seal: A wealthy American financier and the financier's nephew. Afraid that her son will be the next casualty, the aristocrat's wife hires a private detective to investigate the possibility that there is a curse at work and to protect her son from whatever is happening. The detective accepts the commission and he and a college travel to Egypt to investigate. As the detective arrives at the camp a renown archeologist, one who was present when the seal on the tomb was broken, dies in the most agonizing of ways. Although everyone discounts the possibility of an ancient Egyptian curse being the cause of the deaths, people seem united in their desire for the detective to find out whether the deaths are all from natural causes or whether someone among on expedition is systematically killing people. In the end, the detective uncovers the cause of the men's deaths: greed. The greed of someone who stood to inherit a great deal of money from the nephew, and sole surviving heir, of the wealthy financier.

Okay, that's nine sentences, not five, and it doesn't mirror the 3-act structure of a play.

Here's what we need:

1st sentence: Sets the stage.
2nd sentence: 1st conflict of novel
3rd sentence: 2nd conflict of novel
4th sentence: 3rd conflict of novel
5th sentence: Gives the outcome.

Let's give this another try:
I didn't do this sentence by sentence, but here are my five sentences:

1) A wealthy English aristocrat dies of a heart-attack after breaking the seal on the tomb of a long-dead Egyptian pharaoh. The aristocrat's death is quickly followed by the death of two men who were with him when the seal was broken: A wealthy American financier and the financier's nephew.

2) Afraid that her son will be the next casualty, the aristocrat's wife hires a private detective to uncover the true cause of the deaths, whether it is an ancient Egyptian curse or something more mundane. The detective accepts the commission and he and a college travel to Egypt to investigate.

3) As the detective arrives at the camp a renown archeologist, one who was present when the seal on the tomb was broken, dies in the most agonizing of ways. The man, an Egyptologist, was competing with an equally renown colleague from another institution. Could his rival have taken advantage of the situation to off his rival and blame it on the curse?

4) Although everyone discounts the possibility of an ancient Egyptian curse being the cause of the deaths, they spurn the detective's efforts to arrive at the truth. Did these men die from natural causes or from an ancient curse, or perhaps someone among on expedition is systematically killing people.

5) In the end, the detective uncovers the cause of the deaths: greed. The greed of someone who stood to inherit a great deal of money from the nephew, and sole surviving heir, of the wealthy financier. The archeologist was killed as a red herring.

Our expanded sentence is not perfect but now at least we see the skeleton of a story begin to emerge. In the next post in this series we will transform each of our five sentences – or, in our case, mini-paragraphs – into individual paragraphs, keeping in mind that each paragraph should itself reflect the three-act structure of a play.

Thanks for reading!

The Starburst Method, Part 1: Creating a one sentence summary
The Starburst Method, Part 2: Developing our one sentence summary
The Starburst Method, Part 3: Creating a five paragraph summary
The Starburst Method, Part 4: Developing characters
The Starburst Method, Part 5: Creating a five page summary
The Starburst Method, Part 6: Developing scenes
The Starburst Method, Part 7: The character grid
The Starburst Method, Part 8: The rough draft and narrative drive

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