Do you find no structure in your story? Can’t you even make out what the beginning, middle and end are? Best-selling American author Steven James shows how you can ignore the structures and focus instead on your characters. That way, the pieces will eventually fall into place anyway.
Imagine for a second you were transposed into the karmic driven world of Earl. I say, “I woke up. I ate breakfast. Then I went to work. ”
Is it a story?
Well, As a ghostwriter at Ghostwriting Solution, there is a main character who makes some kind of choice which in turn leads to a natural chain of events. In addition, you can divide it all into three acts, and there is a beginning, a middle and an end. That is, exactly what a story is usually said to consist of.
And yet it is not a further story. Why?
Well, because the account lacks all the important ingredients in a good story – there is no crisis, no struggle and no new discovery. The main character does not undergo any development either.
OVER THE YEARS, I have held writing courses around the world and it is always fun to see the reactions when I ask people to stop thinking about their stories in terms of structure. No wonder they react. Talk to any writer or language teacher, and sooner or later it will come: the principle that a story is something that has a beginning, a middle and an end.
I know people who want to teach this definition just mean well, but in practice it is actually not very useful to us storytellers. Even a description of an orange can have a beginning, a middle and an end, which does not necessarily make it a story.
So what is a story?
MANY HUNDREDS OF years ago, Aristotle wrote in his book On the Art of Poetry that it is not enough to just see the beginning of a story as a first event in a series of three. Rather, the beginning is the seed itself: an emotionally engaging event. The center is the natural consequence of this event. The end is the inevitable decision.
In other words: stories have an origin, an escalating conflict and a resolution.
Of course, a story also needs engaging characters, environments and credible choice situations. But the most basic thing about a story is that it contains some form of development.
SIMPLY PUT, one could say that it is not a story until something goes wrong. If there are no contradictions, setbacks, crises and turning points, well then there is no story either.
However, the secret behind a story that captures readers is not necessarily to let more and more things happen to your characters. No, the key to writing better stories is to create suspense that grows as your story unfolds.
Let’s look at five of the most basic ingredients, and then explore how to mix them to create really good stories.
Ingredient 1: Location description
The introduction to your story must capture the reader’s attention. It should give her a sense of the story’s environment, mood and tone, and present the main character she is meant to care about, worry about and engage with emotionally.
Ingredient 2: Crisis
That crisis that turns the life of the protagonist upside down must, of course, be of a kind that he or she cannot solve immediately. It is an inevitable and irreversible ordeal that accelerates the story.
Ingredient 3: Escalation
There are two types of characters in all stories – stone figures and clay figures.
When a reader complains that she is bored or that nothing happens in the story, it is not necessarily because there are too few events. Often it is instead about not feeling that the characters behave credibly in their struggle to overcome their problems.
So in this phase, as the story escalates, make sure that your characters really make an effort to cope with the external and internal crisis, and that they do their utmost to be able to restore things to their original order – as the world looked before everything was turned upside down.
Ingredient 4: Discovered
In the climax of the story, your main characters will make a discovery that changes their lives. This can be due to the protagonist’s acumen (such as when the detective suddenly manages to piece together the clues laid out earlier in the story) or courage (as when the hero shows a very special perseverance and steadfastness in the task).
Imagine a butterfly caterpillar going into its pupa. Once it has done so, one of two things will happen: either the caterpillar undergoes a transformation into a butterfly, or it dies. But no matter what happens, it will never crawl out of its pupa like a caterpillar again.
In the same way, you should look at your characters.
As you shape your story and develop your main character, ask yourself: what will my butterfly caterpillar do?
Either it will develop into a more mature, insightful or harmonious person, or it will rush towards death and misery.
To some extent, the genre can determine the direction of this transformation – horror stories, for example, often end in some form of death (physical, mental, emotional or spiritual), but in general most stories end with the doll turning into a butterfly.
That is: the protagonist’s experience that life begins anew – whether it is a physical renewal, mental understanding, emotional healing or spiritual awakening.
This change marks the resolution of the crisis and the very culmination of history. The character will reach a new normality and her actions or attitude at the end of the story illustrate how the person has changed since the beginning. The clay has taken on a new shape.