A Pen In Each Hand

By Beaver

  1. Pull any four novels off your shelves.
  2. Flip through the first book randomly. Write down the first name you see. This will be your main character‘s name. Repeat at least one more time (so you have a minimum of two characters) but as many times as you like. (Remember you’ll have to incorporate them into your story, though, so don’t get too carried away.)
  3. Open the second book randomly. The first place name or description you see (e.g. London, bedroom, mountains) will be your primary setting.
  4. Flip through the third book randomly. Write down the first five events you see. These will form the backbone of your plot.
  5. Open the fourth book randomly. Base the theme of your story on the first emotion you see (envy, fear, guilt, grief, happiness, jealousy, love, pride, shame, trust, etc.).
  6. Make the story your own by using your own style to combine these elements.


Plot + Emotional Journey = Good Story Structure

Absolute Blank

By Amanda Marlowe (The Bellman)

For a long time, I’ve known that a good story is just as important as good writing. Or possibly more important. But what makes a good story? In search of what makes a good story good, I took an online class that focused on story structure and development. I found that just as good writing has some basic rules that writers should be aware of, good stories have a standard structure.

Most writers know that stories need a good plot. Plot is the sequence of physical events. Aristotle proposed a basic plot structure that should be present in a good story: the inciting event, the complications, the climax, the dénouement, and the resolution. Writers depending solely on Aristotle’s incline, however, risk missing half of what makes a story a good story.

Also critical to a good story is the emotional journey undertaken by the character. This journey is usually defined by the protagonist’s character flaw. And like plot, the emotional journey also has its defining moments. There is the backstory, where we are introduced to the protagonist, the crisis, where the protagonist’s main flaw sends the protagonist into inner turmoil, and the epiphany, where the protagonist confronts the flaw head on and either overcomes it or fails to overcome it. A story in which the protagonist fails to overcome the flaw is a tragedy.

The plot and the emotional journey do not work in isolation. Events drive the character, and the character’s emotional reactions drive events. The plot sequence meshes with the emotional journey sequence to form a solid story. A well-structured story will contain the following checkpoints, in order:

Plot + Emotional Journey = Good Story Structure

Act 1:

  • The Hook:
    Start the story with an exciting introductory action to draw the reader in.
  • The Backstory:
    Introduce the main characters and reveal the protagonist’s flaw (through action, not exposition!).
  • The Inciting Event, or Trigger:
    This is the defining event that starts the protagonist on both the emotional and physical journey. This event is generally instigated either directly or indirectly by the antagonist, the person or force acting against the protagonist.

Act 2:

  • The Crisis:
    The crisis is an inner moment of emotional turmoil caused by the triggering event and the protagonist’s flaw.
  • The Complication, or Struggle:
    The physical action that occurs as a result of the triggering event and the crisis is driven by external events and the character flaw. The action is mostly directed by the antagonist.
  • The Epiphany:
    This is the inner moment when the protagonist realizes he or she needs to change, and makes the conscious decision to overcome the character flaw.

Act 3:

  • The Plan:
    The protagonist has confronted the flaw, and can now move in a new direction. This ends the struggle, and allows the protagonist to find a potential solution to the main problem confronting him or her.
  • The Climax:
    The protagonist confronts the antagonist. The insight from the epiphany allows the protagonist to use the antagonist’s own character flaw against the antagonist. Whether protagonists ultimately triumph or fail in a climax depends on whether or not they were able to overcome their own character flaws.
  • The Ending, or Resolution:
    The effects of the climax are shown, and both the emotional journey and the plot are brought to a satisfying conclusion.

These acts are structure points, not space guidelines. They are not each meant to be one third of the story. Writers can spend varying amounts of time on each act. An act and a checkpoint should only be as long as they need to be.

In one story, Act 1 might be a paragraph, while in another, it might be several chapters. The crisis could be several paragraphs, or it could be a single sentence.

For most stories, the bulk of the writing will probably be in Act 2, with the struggles. The struggles should escalate until the character reaches the epiphany.

Act 3 is often short as well. Generally, you don’t want the plan to drag out. Once the character has reached the epiphany, things start to move quickly toward the climax, and then quickly from the climax to the end.

Putting it In Action

Let’s see how this structure works for one of the more popular stories of our time: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Here’s one way to break the story down into its checkpoints. (Disclaimer: These checkpoints are my interpretation of the story after the fact and may or may not agree with anything J.K. Rowling has thought about.)

Act 1 (3½ chapters)

  • Hook:
    The wizarding world is celebrating the defeat of the evil Lord Voldemort, and the infant Harry is left on the doorstep of his aunt’s house.
  • Backstory:
    Harry is bullied by his family, particularly his cousin. Also, strange things happen around him that make his aunt and uncle very angry. He is unsure of himself.
  • Trigger:
    Hagrid the giant reveals that Harry is the son of a wizard and a witch, and that he is to go to Hogwarts, a school for wizards. Harry’s Aunt Petunia accidentally reveals she’s known his past all along.

Act 2 (8½ chapters)

  • Crisis:
    Harry is shocked to find out the truth about his parents. He struggles to reconcile people’s expectations of him because of his past, and his own self-doubt and confused identity.
  • Struggle:
    Harry tries to find his place in the wizarding world. Mysterious events related to the Sorcerer’s stone occur, each one more dangerous than the last. Eventually Harry finds the Mirror of Erisid, which shows him his parents, and he becomes caught up in the identity he never had.
  • Epiphany:
    When he is caught at the Mirror or Erised by Dumbledore, Harry eventually realizes he has to learn to depend on himself and be who he is rather than the person he never was.

Act 3 (4 chapters)

  • Plan:
    Harry and his friends find out that Voldemort is back and is trying to steal the sorcerer’s stone. When they can’t find Dumbledore, they resolve to save the sorcerer’s stone themselves.
  • Climax:
    Harry and his friends navigate a series of magical challenges. At the end, Harry must leave his friends behind to face Voldemort by himself. Voldemort, who has possessed one of the teachers, tries to kill Harry, but touching Harry sends him into agony, and Harry defeats him simply by being who he is.
  • Ending:
    Harry becomes a hero to the school, and shows that he will not be as easily bullied when he returns home. This highlights his new-found confidence in himself.

Viewed through this structure, the story hangs together. There is a strong theme of accepting yourself for who you are that becomes apparent when you look at the different checkpoints. Notice, too, how the checkpoints related to Harry’s flaw of self-doubt about his identity. A lot of Harry’s struggles are directly related to his self-doubt and how it affects his interactions with the external events perpetrated by Lord Voldemort and his minions. He ultimately realizes his lack of identity (as represented by his parents) is fueling this self-doubt and that he must learn to accept himself as he is. And it is because of who he is that he is able to win in the end.

A Backbone, Not a Ball and Chain

I’ve heard people complain that using a story structure like this takes the creativity out of writing, and makes all stories sound the same. But the structure is actually very flexible, and not all checkpoints must have equal weight. For example, an action-adventure story would focus more heavily on the plot checkpoints than on the character’s emotional journey checkpoints, while a work of literary fiction would focus more heavily on the emotional journey checkpoints. The amount of time spent in each checkpoint can also vary widely.

Remember: This structure is the backbone of your story, not the flesh, and not chains wrapped around the flesh. Use the checkpoints to shape your story, not as your story. It should be deeply embedded in your writing rather than brought to the surface and made obvious. The emotional journey checkpoints should evolve naturally from the character flaw and plot checkpoints. When you plan for this to happen, your story is stronger and more satisfying.

Final Poll Results

Struggling With Plots

Absolute Blank

By Amanda Marlowe (The Bellman)

I’ve long been aware of the need for a good plot—a good story is more important in some ways than good writing. I am convinced that one of the reasons books and movies with boilerplate plots do so well is exactly because they have boilerplate plots. They have a basic story that resonates with their readers or viewers over and over again.

I’ve always considered plot to be my weakest link in my writing skills. I can’t seem to get my stories off the ground. I know the basics, I’ve seen Aristotle’s Incline, I’ve taken apart books I love. I still can’t move my characters from point A to point Z.

Background Image: Hans Watson/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

In desperation, I’ve even tried lifting plots straight out of mythology. My NaNoWriMo story last year was a retelling of Orpheus and Eurydice. I figured if I lifted the plot, developed my characters, and got them started, the rest would come. I was wrong. Even when I was starting with a well-formed skeleton, I could not seem to construct a living story out of it.

After my NaNo debacle, I went to look at books on plot. One, 20 Master Plots and How to Build Them by Ronald B. Tobias caught my eye. I knew that the stories that resonated the most and attracted the widest audience all pulled from classic plot structures. Consider the similarities between “Star Wars” and the Harry Potter series, for example. Here, I hoped, was the “magic plot bullet” I was looking for.

In his first chapter, he talks about the problems with using the “plot as a skeleton” metaphor. Plot is diffusive, dynamic, not a static object like a skeleton. It isn’t just something to stick text onto. Plot is a process. Tobias describes plot as being a dynamic force (he compares it to electromagnetism) rather than a static structure. He then goes on to describe the different classic plots in terms of characterization and action. Some plot types have more action and less character development, others more character development than action. As I was reading, the whole thing reminded me of how energy is often described in science textbooks.

There are two basic types of energy: kinetic energy, the energy of motion, and potential energy, the energy something has because it could move if some force weren’t preventing it from doing so. If that preventative force is removed, the object starts moving, converting its potential energy to kinetic energy. For example, a book on a table doesn’t fall because the upward force from the table prevents it from doing so. Remove the table, and the book falls, gaining speed as it falls. Its potential energy converts into kinetic energy.

A new paradigm developed in my mind. I started to think of plot not as a skeleton-like structure, but as energy conversions between action and characterization. In a story, action is like kinetic energy, and characterization is like potential energy. It is the potential of the character—how the character reacts to forces acting or failing to act on him or her—that determines the action that follows.

Consider the plot of Hamlet. Hamlet has the potential to act on the news of his father’s murder shortly after he learns about it from his father’s ghost. However, he resists acting out of a sense of fairness that is a deep part of his character. He wants to be sure his uncle is truly guilty. As the forces that keep him from acting are slowly removed, the action of the story starts to pick up, just as a book will start slowly to fall to the floor when you release it. Once the process starts, the action in the play continues to its inevitable end, and the potential of character rushes Hamlet into the frantic action of the closing scenes.

As I thought about the force-energy paradigm of plot, I found more parallels. While there are only two basic types of energy, kinetic and potential, they are often found in standard combinations that are commonly called forms of energy. These include nuclear energy, chemical energy, and mechanical energy.

The “master plots” that Tobias refers to can be thought of as common combinations of characterization and action. They are comparable in some ways to the forms of energy. Each has specific combinations of character development and action. Each has “rules” that it relies on to convert its initial energy into the final climax of the story.

For example, the basic adventure plot is pretty much all action. The goal is the adventure. This type of plot is common in many children’s books, such as the Nancy Drew mystery series. Nancy Drew doesn’t change throughout the entire series of books. She doesn’t even age. Her character takes a back seat to the mystery she is solving. A quest plot, on the other hand, is similar in that it involves adventure, but also involves far more character development. The adventure is secondary to the growth of the person on the quest. The hobbit characters in The Lord of the Rings each change and grow as a result of the quest to destroy Sauron’s ring of power.

How does all this help me with developing a plot? What happens if I start to think of plot as something other than the basic outline of the action, if I think of it as the conversion between character and action, if I think of situations and character flaws as the forces that cause the conversions? Instead of a lifeless skeleton waiting for meat to be put on its bones so that it can be a lifeless body, I have a story with energy. I have a story where action follows from characterization, and character change follows from action in a natural way. I have a way of thinking that helps me figure out where I need to add a situational force to increase the characterization potential, or where I should increase the speed of the action. It also lets me think in terms of wasted energy—what things aren’t contributing to the conversions I want?

Does the new paradigm work? I don’t know yet. It’s still new, and I haven’t had the chance to apply it. Tell you what. Why don’t we both try it and see what happens?


Final Poll Results