Wednesday, 20 June 2012

So, What IS a Story?

At school, I remember learning that “a story has a beginning, a middle and an end.” I also remember being told a tale about a frog in a pond who gets out and has a walk around, then has to find his way back. I think it was to do with how stories are circles and the start has to be the same as the end. Or something. Needless to say, I didn’t come out of that lesson feeling particularly enlightened. Maybe some people are lucky enough to be born with an innate sense for storytelling – they don’t need to learn how to do it because they already know.  

All I know is, I’m not one of those people.

Consequently, as a beginning writer, it wasn’t words or ideas that I struggled with, but how to tell a story. And for a writer who was discovering she wanted to write fast paced, plot driven, commercial fiction, that was a HUGE problem. Whenever I'm writing a book, one of my main goals with it is to tell a good story that's well written. If one half of that equation is missing (and it doesn’t matter which half it is), I end up with a broken book. A badly broken book.

The frustrating thing was that, even back then, I knew this. But I couldn’t figure out where I was going wrong. I couldn’t work out why my plots ended up turning in circles or fizzling out altogether; why the crime ‘novel’ I tried to write ran out of steam after 20,000 words or so (which is most definitely not long enough for a novel). I was reading how-to-write books obsessively, and studying novels, trying to figure out the ‘secret’ to storytelling, and failing miserably. I knew the answer was there, but for some reason, I couldn’t quite see it. “You need more conflict,” I remember being told about a short story I’d written. But what did that mean? I hadn’t got a clue.

Then I happened across an article in a writers’ magazine about a book called STORY: SUBSTANCE, STRUCTURE, STYLE AND THE PRINCIPLES OF SCREENWRITING by Robert McKee (Methuen, 1999). It sounded interesting, so I borrowed a copy from the library.

This book is made of awesome


It was a revelation. For the first time, here were the mechanics of storytelling laid out explicitly, in diagram form, even. I studied that book from beginning to end, writing out pages of notes, and slowly, over the course of many more stories, began to understand what I needed to do to make my plots work.
So, “a story has a beginning, a middle and an end.” Fair enough. But what function do those three elements actually have? To understand them, it’s necessary to break things down a bit. So let’s give this a YA/kidlit twist and imagine you’re writing a story about a kid who discovers his teachers are zombie vampires…

The beginning: something happens to your Main Character (who shall herein be referred to as the MC) that upsets the balance in his life - he discovers his teachers are zombie vampires. This particular event can also be called (a la McKee) the inciting incident. I like to call it the spark – as in, the event that sparks the story.

This spark propels your MC into a quest to redress the balance in his life, sometimes known as, er, the quest. Basically, it’s their mission to get everything back to normal (they need to find a way to get rid of the vampires).

Only this musn’t happen… not straight away, anyhow. You have to put obstacles in the MC’s way to stop them achieving their mission - aka conflict. Each obstacle must be bigger than the last – for example, first obstacle: the MC needs to make stakes to kill off the vampire teachers, but can’t find any wood; second obstacle: he finds wood and makes the stakes, only to discover all the legends were a lie and vampires can’t be killed by wooden stakes. The number of obstacles depends on the length of your story, and this quest and attempts to overcome the obstacles in their way are what usually make up the middle of the book.

Finally, you reach the biggest obstacle of all - the Crisis. Your MC must take a final action, which, if it fails, there is no return from. This kicks off the story’s Climax, where you show the MC taking that final action - the most exciting point of the story. It can literally be a life or death situation - either your MC has a face-off with the head vampire, and must kill him/her to get rid of the rest of the vampires and save everyone who hasn’t been turned into a vampire themselves. And then you have the resolution where you show what happens next and wrap the book up to whatever extent it needs wrapping up (depending on whether you have a closed or open ending) – AKA the end.

Altogether, this structure is known as the Story Arc. If it was in picture form, it might looks something like this:

© Emma Pass 2012


You don't have to nail this structure in your first draft – I'd say that’s pretty much impossible, in fact, especially if you write the way I do and discover most of your story as you go along. But when I reach the editing stage, understanding how a story actually works is the key to being able to fix problems and make the story I’m trying to tell as strong as possible. Gaining that knowledge has literally unlocked writing for me.

What about you? Which writing resources and advice have you found most useful, and how did they help you?

35 comments:

  1. Great post Emma. Interesting and informative. But . . . inciting incident, motivation, quest, conflict, crisis, climax . . . these things are all very well, but you forgot the single most important part; the sprinkle of fairy dust! Actually, it makes it all look pretty mundane when you break it down into its parts, but virtually every story you look at can be viewed this way. And, like you, I have to wait until my first draft is done before I really know where it's all going.

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    1. Ah, good point, Dan! Of COURSE you have to have the fairy dust… I guess I just assumed that was already there (otherwise where would you find the excitement, the magic, that drives you to write the story in the first place?).

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  2. Fab post Emma. I can't even get to 20,000 words - run out of steam at 5,000 lol.

    I love Story - It's one of the few non-fiction book that I haven't given away over the years.

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    1. Thanks, Jesse! Glad you love STORY too.

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  3. Em, what a fab post! The book looks great too, and how wonderful that you sat and went through it in the way you did until all the pieces fell into place. I have to say, I don't really write like this and I'm with you that I don't feel like a natural story teller. I think it's hard work! I am much more 'fairy dust' (as Dan so beautifully put it) than anything else and my stories are very character driven. My YA (which you know about and which is sitting in a cupboard) is the only thing I have ever structured in any sense. I do think about these things, but they don't guide me in an overt way. Funnily, when a work is finished though, all those parts are there! Your diagram is ace and really works for me as visuals have that 'penny dropping' effect.

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    1. Thanks, Abi! Glad you like the diagram. Yes, fairy dust is an essential part of the process – I guess the other stuff is the foundations which stop it collapsing into nothing. You shouldn't be able to see it, as such, but you know they're there (in some form or the other) because the story holds together. If that makes sense?! I used to think about the structure a lot more when I first learnt about it, but now it's more instinctual – something I keep at the back of my mind that I can call on to solve problems with the plot, usually at the editing stage.

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  4. I love the way you've put this, and the addition of 'fairy dust' from Dan. When I wrote my current wip, it was so much fairy dust and quest, but not big enough obstacles...I got it critiqued years ago and the advice was so valuable. It meant it got a huge rewrite and the story arc worked so much better! Now I'm reworking it having learned so much more over the years and it finally fits. The incitement at the beginning is punchy and dangerous, (where the beginning was originally lost in too much lead up)and the obstacles grow with the adventure, culminating in the tense climax...
    When you have a story clawing its way out of your mind, the worry is always that you won't be good enough at telling it! Great post Emma!

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    1. Thank you, Lisa! And I know that feeling… I'm having it with my WIP right now! :/

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  5. This was very inspiring! I just finished reading Stephen King's On Writing and plan to read Blake Snyder's Save The Cat! I'm having problems with middles, so see the diagram was very helpful. Thanks!

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    1. Thank you, Steph. I find the middle is often the hardest bit to write - you've set everything up and NOW what? Glad the diagram helped!

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  6. Fantastic post! I'm not a writer but there is an aspiring writer deep inside of me, the only thing I write on is my blog and I'm not sure if I'll ever do more but his makes so much sense. I read your post and thought 'ahh I see what she means'. A really helpful post, even if I never use it, it was interesting :o)

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    1. Thank you, Kate! Really glad you liked it. :)

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  7. Such a great (and helpful) post! I love the diagram, have printed it out to study and for reference! I'm not sure if I'm a natural or not... but I agree with you, I need to study "how to write" books to help me find my way. My earliest books (all middle grade fiction) got many positive comments from editors, but a persistent concern was "not enough conflict." It took me FOREVER to get a pulse on what this meant in my writing, and I think it's still my very biggest challenge. Which is exactly why I'm so happy to see your diagram. I'm of the mind that I can never have enough information and helpful hints, so thank you so much!

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    1. Thank you, Julia! It's definitely still my biggest challenge too, so I'm really pleased the diagram helps you. :)

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  8. This is such an insightful post! As a beginner who's been teaching writing for several years, I still struggle with telling a story. I've felt completely overwhelmed with options in the "how-to" section of a bookstore. You offer sound advice. I'm encouraged.

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    1. Thank you, Valerie! Really glad you found it useful. And I know what you mean about feeling overwhelmed - there is SO much advice out there and I think you just have to find the stuff that works for you and suits your way of writing. Not always easy, though!

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  9. You know, I've never heard of STORY before but now I might have to check it out. We used to use a similar diagram in my literature courses to help us write an essay (in high school). Very useful stuff although I used to be annoyed we had to use it. "I KNOW what all that stuff is" I used to say. LOL I think it is from the habit of being a writer.

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    1. P.S. I posted a book review (about a book on 'the other side of the pond' :))

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    2. Definitely check it out, Rachel! It's really interesting – and very different from any other writing book out there. Off to look at your review now! :)

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  10. Great post, Emma! I need to read this post each time before I sit down to write. So often all I do is ramble, ramble, ramble when I write.

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    1. Thank you, Jennifer! Oh, I do plenty of rambling too… my first drafts are 50% ramble! But the structure stuff is very useful when it comes to sorting it all out in the rewrites.

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  11. What a wonderfully clear exposition! I came to plotting via myths, and Campbell's classic 'Hero's Journey' - his ideas really clicked for me, as a writer, in the more recent book by Hollywood screenwriter Christopher Vogler, 'The Writer's Journey.' I needed these abstracts because I don't have massive reserves of fairy dust, unfortunately!

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    1. Thank you, Jenny! I've found this structure to be a wonderful framework to sprinkle the fairy dust over, if you know what I mean. I think you *have* to have the fairy dust – of course you do – but without anything to prop it up, it would be like a beautiful building without any foundation – doomed to collapse (and I should know, because that's exactly the problem my stories had before I learnt how to tell a story!).

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  12. Thank you for this wonderful post, Emma! I've received similar diagrams at writers conferences, and they're always such helpful reminders.

    One of my favorite writing advice books is HOW TO WRITE A DAMN GOOD NOVEL by James N. Frey. He offers tips about how to make each scene as compelling as it can be to propel a book's plot forward. I haven't read it in a while, but I always keep his info in mind as I write.

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    1. Thank you, Cat! Really glad you liked it. I've heard about James N Frey's book – I'll have to check it out.

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  13. Emma, you've helped me figure out an issue the short story I'm editing. Thank you for this post!

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    1. Thank you, Amanda - glad it helped!

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  14. This is a great post, Emma. I mostly feel my way along, but sometimes it's really helpful to get this sort of perspective. In fact, I think I'm going to buy that book, so thanks:)

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    1. Thank you, Tom. Hope you find it useful - it's hardcore story-geek stuff, but brilliant! :)

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  15. I read a similar version in Nigel Watts 'Writing a Novel and getting it published' He calls it the 8 point arc and it goes a little something like this...

    1.Stasis
    2.Trigger
    3.The quest
    4.Surprise
    5.Critical choice
    6.Climax
    7.Reversal
    8.Resolution

    The diagram is nowhere near as pretty though - more a wibbly line!

    I have recently started reading 'Story' - finding it pretty tough going to be honest! Feels too much like school reading at the moment (where you have to read each page twice before anything sinks in!) Will stick to it though! I may be done by Christmas...

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    1. That's really interesting, thank you! I'll have to read that book. And I know what you mean about STORY - I found it quite hard at first too. But totally worth it!

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    1. Cool, hope you find it as useful as I did/do!

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  17. You completely resounded with me in this line:

    "And for a writer who was discovering she wanted to write ***fast paced, plot driven, commercial fiction***,"

    albeit right now my story is trying to be more character driven, but still having major plot points that drive the story forward.

    A very useful and excellent post.

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    1. Thank you, Rissa. Glad you found it so useful. :)

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