Imagine that I’m telling you about my day and I say, “I woke up. I ate breakfast. I left for work.”
Is that a story? After all, it has a protagonist who makes choices that lead to a natural progression of events, it contains three acts and it has a beginning, a middle and an end—and that’s what makes something a story, right?
Well, actually, no.
—By Steven James
My description of what I did this morning—while it may meet those commonly accepted criteria—contains no crisis, no struggle, no discovery, no transformation in the life of the main character. It’s a report, but it’s not a story.
Over the years as I’ve taught at writing conferences around the world, you should see some of the looks I’ve gotten when I tell people to stop thinking of a story in terms of its structure. And it’s easy to understand why.Spend enough time with writers or English teachers and you’ll hear the dictum that a story is something that has a beginning, middle and end. I know that the people who share this definition mean well, but it’s really not a very helpful one for storytellers. After all, a description of a pickle has a beginning, a middle and an end, but it’s not a story. The sentence, “Preheat the oven to 450 degrees,” has those basic elements, but it’s not a story either.
So then, what is a story?
Centuries ago, Aristotle noted in his book Poetics that while a story does have a beginning, a middle and an ending, the beginning is not simply the first event in a series of three, but rather the emotionally engaging originating event. The middle is the natural and causally related consequence, and the end is the inevitable conclusive event.
In other words, stories have an origination, an escalation of conflict, and a resolution.
Of course, stories also need a vulnerable character, a setting that’s integral to the narrative, meaningful choices that determine the outcome of the story, and reader empathy. But at its most basic level, a story is a transformation unveiled—either the transformation of a situation or, most commonly, the transformation of a character.
Simply put, you do not have a story until something goes wrong.
At its heart, a story is about a person dealing with tension, and tension is created by unfulfilled desire. Without forces of antagonism, without setbacks, without a crisis event that initiates the action, you have no story. The secret, then, to writing a story that draws readers in and keeps them turning pages is not to make more and more things happen to a character, and especially not to follow some preordained plot formula or novel-writing template. Instead, the key to writing better stories is to focus on creating more and more tension as your story unfolds.
Understanding the fundamentals at the heart of all good stories will help you tell your own stories better—and sell more of them, too. Imagine you’re baking a cake. You mix together certain ingredients in a specific order and end up with a product that is uniquely different than any individual ingredient. In the process of mixing and then baking the cake, these ingredients are transformed into something delicious.
That’s what you’re trying to do when you bake up a story.
So let’s look at five essential story ingredients, and then review how to mix them together to make your story so good readers will ask for seconds.
Ingredient #1: Orientation
The beginning of a story must grab the reader’s attention, orient her to the setting, mood and tone of the story, and introduce her to a protagonist she will care about, even worry about, and emotionally invest time and attention into. If readers don’t care about your protagonist, they won’t care about your story, either.
So, what’s the best way to introduce this all-important character? In essence, you want to set reader expectations and reveal a portrait of the main character by giving readers a glimpse of her normal life. If your protagonist is a detective, we want to see him at a crime scene. If you’re writing romance, we want to see normal life for the young woman who’s searching for love. Whatever portrait you draw of your character’s life, keep in mind that it will also serve as a promise to your readers of the transformation that this character will undergo as the story progresses.
For example, if you introduce us to your main character, Frank, the happily married man next door, readers instinctively know that Frank’s idyllic life is about to be turned upside down—most likely by the death of either his spouse or his marriage. Something will soon rock the boat and he will be altered forever. Because when we read about harmony at the start of a story, it’s a promise that discord is about to come. Readers expect this.
Please note that normal life doesn’t mean pain-free life. The story might begin while your protagonist is depressed, hopeless, grieving or trapped in a sinking submarine. Such circumstances could be what’s typical for your character at this moment. When that happens, it’s usually another crisis (whether internal or external) that will serve to kick-start the story. Which brings us to the second ingredient.
Ingredient #2: Crisis
This crisis that tips your character’s world upside down must, of course, be one that your protagonist cannot immediately solve. It’s an unavoidable, irrevocable challenge that sets the movement of the story into motion.
Typically, your protagonist will have the harmony of both his external world and his internal world upset by the crisis that initiates the story. One of these two imbalances might have happened before the beginning of the story, but usually at least one will occur on the page for your readers to experience with your protagonist, and the interplay of these two dynamics will drive the story forward.
Depending on the genre, the crisis that alters your character’s world might be a call to adventure—a quest that leads to a new land, or a prophecy or revelation that he’s destined for great things. Mythic, fantasy and science-fiction novels often follow this pattern. In crime fiction, the crisis might be a new assignment to a seemingly unsolvable case. In romance, the crisis might be undergoing a divorce or breaking off an engagement.
In each case, though, life is changed and it will never be the same again.
George gets fired. Amber’s son is kidnapped. Larry finds out his cancer is terminal. Whatever it is, the normal life of the character is forever altered, and she is forced to deal with the difficulties that this crisis brings.
There are two primary ways to introduce a crisis into your story. Either begin the story by letting your character have what he desires most and then ripping it away, or by denying him what he desires most and then dangling it in front of him. So, he’ll either lose something vital and spend the story trying to regain it, or he’ll see something desirable and spend the story trying to obtain it.
Say you’ve imagined a character who desires love more than anything else. His deepest fear will be abandonment. You’ll either want to introduce the character by showing him in a satisfying, loving relationship, and then insert a crisis that destroys it, or you’ll want to show the character’s initial longing for a mate, and then dangle a promising relationship just out of his reach so that he can pursue it throughout the story.
Likewise, if your character desires freedom most, then he’ll try to avoid enslavement. So, you might begin by showing that he’s free, and then enslave him, or begin by showing that he’s enslaved, and then thrust him into a freedom-pursuing adventure.
It all has to do with what the main character desires, and what he wishes to avoid.
Ingredient #3: Escalation
There are two types of characters in every story—pebble people and putty people.
If you take a pebble and throw it against a wall, it’ll bounce off the wall unchanged. But if you throw a ball of putty against a wall hard enough, it will change shape.
Always in a story, your main character needs to be a putty person.
When you throw him into the crisis of the story, he is forever changed, and he will take whatever steps he can to try and solve his struggle—that is, to get back to his original shape (life before the crisis).
But he will fail.
Because he’ll always be a different shape at the end of the story than he was at the beginning. If he’s not, readers won’t be satisfied.
Putty people are altered.
Pebble people remain the same. They’re like set pieces. They appear onstage in the story, but they don’t change in essential ways as the story progresses. They’re the same at the ending as they were at the beginning.
And they are not very interesting.
So, exactly what kind of wall are we throwing our putty person against?
First, stop thinking of plot in terms of what happens in your story. Rather, think of it as payoff for the promises you’ve made early in the story. Plot is the journey toward transformation.
As I mentioned earlier, typically two crisis events interweave to form the multilayered stories that today’s readers expect: an external struggle that needs to be overcome, and an internal struggle that needs to be resolved. As your story progresses, then, the consequences of not solving those two struggles need to become more and more intimate, personal and devastating. If you do this, then as the stakes are raised, the two struggles will serve to drive the story forward and deepen reader engagement and interest.
Usually if a reader says she’s bored or that “nothing’s happening in the story,” she doesn’t necessarily mean that events aren’t occurring, but rather that she doesn’t see the protagonist taking natural, logical steps to try and solve his struggle. During the escalation stage of your story, let your character take steps to try and resolve the two crises (internal and external) and get back to the way things were earlier, before his world
was tipped upside down.
Ingredient #4: Discovery
At the climax of the story, the protagonist will make a discovery that changes his life.
Typically, this discovery will be made through wit (as the character cleverly pieces together clues from earlier in the story) or grit (as the character shows extraordinary perseverance or tenacity) to overcome the crisis event (or meet the calling) he’s been given.
The internal discovery and the external resolution help reshape our putty person’s life and circumstances forever.
The protagonist’s discovery must come from a choice that she makes, not simply by chance or from a Wise Answer-Giver. While mentors might guide a character toward self-discovery, the decisions and courage that determine the outcome of the story must come
from the protagonist.
In one of the paradoxes of storytelling, the reader wants to predict how the story will end (or how it will get to the end), but he wants to be wrong. So, the resolution of the story will be most satisfying when it ends in a way that is both inevitable and unexpected.
Ingredient #5: Change
Think of a caterpillar entering a cocoon. Once he does so, one of two things will happen: He will either transform into a butterfly, or he will die. But no matter what else happens, he will never climb out of the cocoon as a caterpillar.
So it is with your protagonist.
As you frame your story and develop your character, ask yourself, “What is my caterpillar doing?” Your character will either be transformed into someone more mature, insightful or at peace, or will plunge into death or despair.
Although genre can dictate the direction of this transformation—horror stories will often end with some kind of death (physical, psychological, emotional or spiritual)—most genres are butterfly genres. Most stories end with the protagonist experiencing new life—whether that’s physical renewal, psychological understanding, emotional healing or a spiritual awakening.
This change marks the resolution of the crisis and the culmination of the story.
As a result of facing the struggle and making this new discovery, the character will move to a new normal. The character’s actions or attitude at the story’s end show us how she’s changed from the story’s inception. The putty has become a new shape, and if it’s thrown against the wall again, the reader will understand that a brand-new story is now unfolding. The old way of life has been forever changed by the process of moving through the struggle to the discovery and into a new and different life.
Letting Structure Follow Story
I don’t have any idea how many acts my novels contain.
A great many writing instructors, classes and manuals teach that all stories should have three acts—and, honestly, that doesn’t make much sense to me. After all, in theater, you’ll find successful one-act, two-act, three-act and four-act plays. And most assuredly, they are all stories.
If you’re writing a novel that people won’t read in one sitting (which is presumably every novel), your readers couldn't care less about how many acts there are—in fact, they probably won’t even be able to keep track of them. What readers really care about is the forward movement of the story as it escalates to its inevitable and unexpected conclusion.
While it’s true that structuring techniques can be helpful tools, unfortunately, formulaic approaches frequently send stories spiraling off in the wrong direction or, just as bad, handcuff the narrative flow. Often the people who advocate funneling your story into a predetermined three-act structure will note that stories have the potential to sag or stall out during the long second act. And whenever I hear that, I think, Then why not shorten it? Or chop it up and include more acts? Why let the story suffer just so you can follow a formula?
I have a feeling that if you asked the people who teach three-act structure if they’d rather have a story that closely follows their format, or one that intimately connects with readers, they would go with the latter. Why? Because I’m guessing that deep down, even they know that in the end, story trumps structure.
Once I was speaking with another writing instructor and he told me that the three acts form the skeleton of a story. I wasn’t sure how to respond to that until I was at an aquarium with my daughter later that week and I saw an octopus. I realized that it got along pretty well without a skeleton. A storyteller’s goal is to give life to a story, not to stick in bones that aren’t necessary for that species of tale.
So, stop thinking of a story as something that happens in three acts, or two acts, or four or seven, or as something that is driven by predetermined elements of plot. Rather, think of your story as an organic whole that reveals a transformation in the life of your character. The number of acts or events should be determined by the movement of the story, not the other way around.
Because story trumps structure.
If you render a portrait of the protagonist’s life in such a way that we can picture his world and also care about what happens to him, we’ll be drawn into the story. If you present us with an emotionally stirring crisis or calling, we’ll get hooked. If you show the stakes rising as the character struggles to solve this crisis, you’ll draw us in more deeply. And if you end the story in a surprising yet logical way that reveals a transformation of the main character’s life, we’ll be satisfied and anxious to read your next story.
The ingredients come together, and the cake tastes good.
Always be ready to avoid formulas, discard acts and break the “rules” for the sake of the story—which is another way of saying: Always be ready to do it for the sake of your readers.
Not sure if your story structure is strong enough to woo an agent? Consider:
Story Structure Architect