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.
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?