Has something crazy ever happened to you, and you want to tell someone, but you need to figure out the best way to present the story to them? This is what being a writer can feel like, more often than not. We have a great story idea, all the elements, and an outline, but we’re not sure how to best communicate the story.
Let’s talk about it.
While most stories have a beginning, middle, and end, the way each story travels that path varies based on how the events are presented. As you develop your story, decide if you want to communicate the storyline linearly, jumping back and forth in time or using flashbacks as a story device.
Whose POV are we getting the story from? This character will be the conduit through which the reader is given information about the events in the story. Are we getting one character’s POV or several POVs? How does each character’s POV give the reader new insight into the story?
Decide the best way to convey the story and its elements. Does the story have enough material to be novel, or is it a novella or short story? Could it be a screenplay or a play? Each of these requires a different type of communicative style that uniquely delivers information to the reader.
How have others handled stories similar to yours? What genre would it fit into? How have those authors effectively communicated their stories to readers? How can you apply that information to your story to communicate it better?
Put It Out There
If you’ve written out an outline or a draft, give it to someone to read. Let them ask questions. Find ways to communicate the story that keeps them wanting more. Are there points where they lost interest or were confused? Ask them why? Then you can work on fine-tuning those areas to make them stronger and more effective.
Learn From Others
We’ve all seen at least one movie or read a novel where the idea is there, but how it’s communicated and presented fails to capture our interest. Why did this happen? By learning from others, we can strengthen our work by avoiding mistakes.
We often talk about the basics of writing: who, what, where, when, and why. But the final element, how, is just as important when you set out to communicate your story effectively. Deciding the best way to present the narrative can help strengthen your story and give it a greater impact.
To outline, or not to outline? It’s an interesting question. Do you just have an idea for a story and then dive in and let your creativity drive you forward? Or, do you take some time outlining where the story is likely to go (at least in its primary iteration)? These are more commonly known as being a panster (someone who writes by the seat of their pants) versus being a planner (obviously, someone who plans ahead).
Today, we’re going to talk about being a planner, so let’s get to it.
Where Do I Go?
As writers, we’ve all had dozens if not hundreds of ideas. But not all ideas evolve into cohesive and complete stories. One of the reasons many ideas tend to fizzle is that people have the idea, jump into writing it, then have no idea what happens next. While it’s great for the reader or viewer to be in the dark about what’s to come, the writer should have some idea where the story is going.
Having a plan, even a basic idea, of where the story is headed can help you stay on track since you’ll have a rudimentary framework. Even if you change things along the way, knowing you have an endpoint to move toward can help you get the story done.
How should you map things out?
Using Story Structure
In screenwriting structure, a story’s major events are broken down as follows:
• Inciting Incident
• Turning Point One
• Turning Point Two
These represent the big moments or turning points in the story where big things happen that cause the main character to change course and move in a new direction. Whether you are writing a screenplay, novel, or play, these can be helpful events to write down in sentence form to create a basic outline for your story.
Using Big Moments
Perhaps you’re writing action, sci-fi, or fantasy, and you know several big sequences or events are taking place throughout the story. Take the time to write them down in the order they happen and include what characters are involved.
These big events will likely coincide with the inciting incident, turning points, or climax mentioned in the previous section. Writing down the big action sequences can also help motivate you to craft a compelling narrative that links these big events.
A Story Problem-Solver
The goal of creating an outline is to help you not lose steam ten, fifteen, or twenty pages into your story. It can also help you see any big story problems before you’re 50,000 words into the story and find you have to cut 10,000 words because one of your plot elements hit a dead end.
Taking the time to outline can help you unravel story problems, fix any confusing elements, and ensure that your story has logic and coherence throughout. Even if you are writing a story meant to keep the reader guessing, you, as the writer, need to know what will happen.
Keep the reader in the dark, not yourself.
Like A Road Trip
Most people wouldn’t go on a road trip without some basic idea of where they’re going, where to get gas and food, and maybe some places to stop along the way. In the old days, people would have a paper map to draw their route from start to finish, perhaps highlighting or starring the points of interest.
Think of a story outline from the same perspective as planning a road trip. You have your starting point, points of interest, and your final destination. Will it go 100% according to plan? Probably not, but you can make the necessary adjustments and changes along the way in both situations.
Both situations take you on a journey that can lead to self-discovery, learning to deal with stressful situations and the satisfaction of getting to the end of the trip.
An outline is not an iron-clad document that is immune to change. If you want to take your story in a new direction, go for it. But take the time to map out the basics of where the story is headed with the new changes.
This also allows you to play “choose your own adventure” repeatedly without having to write thousands of words, only to discover that the direction you chose doesn’t work.
A story outline in any form is a helpful and valuable tool for us to use when developing a coherent and solid narrative. By taking the time to map out where your story is headed, you can rest easy knowing that you have a plan to get from “Once upon a time” to “and they lived happily ever after.”
Whether basic or detailed, story outlines are a must for any writer’s toolbox.
We’ve been on quite a journey the past several weeks. From exploring the Beginning of a story through the tumultuous Middle, and to its climactic End, we have seen how these elements combine into a narrative structure that is commonplace in most commercial stories today.
As you develop your story, think about how you can take these different areas and make them your own, creating a powerful, compelling, and intriguing narrative that will grab readers from the start and have them furiously reading until the very last page.
With that in mind, let’s look at a few things to consider as you craft a story.
Plot-Driven of Character-Driven?
What is affecting the main character that is driving them to action? Is it an external or internal force? If it’s an external force, you are dealing with a more plot-driven story. If it’s an internal force, you’re looking at a character-driven one.
Most action movies are plot-driven. There’s an external incident that pushes the main character into action. Steve Rogers doesn’t become Captain America if there’s not a war effort going on. Batman doesn’t jump into action if the Joker doesn’t inflict his criminal insanity on Gotham City. While we do see these characters change due to their external circumstances, they are not driven forward by those internal forces in terms of the story being told.
Dramas and some comedies are more character-driven. An event may spur the main character into action, but they are in control of their circumstances. There may be external forces at work against them, but the hero’s internal drive and internal obstacles are what the audience is banking on. When you watch or read these stories, we watch to see how the hero is impacted internally by what’s happening. American Beauty and Nomadland are two great examples of character-driven drama. We are watching the main character’s internal evolution and how that impacts their external circumstances.
When you sit down to flesh out your story, ask yourself what’s driving your main character forward? Is it an internal motivation or an external force?
Take the Time to Outline
There’s are two terms that writers often use to describe the two types of writers: Plotters and Pantsers. Basically, a Plotter outlines their story; a Pantser throws caution to the wind and “flies by the seat of their pants.” Now, while both are fine, I recommend that before you put pen to paper or start typing your story, you at the very least jot down a basic guide of where the story is going.
Like many writers, I have had an idea for a story and started writing only to lose steam a few pages in? Why? I didn’t take the time to work on a basic guide to see where the story would go and how it might end.
When you plan a road trip, you usually look at a map and decide where you’ll stop for food, gas, a hotel, etc. on your journey. Winging it may result in you getting lost, running out of gas with no station for miles, or turning down a road that leads to nowhere. Not planning ahead in a story can have similar consequences.
I’m not saying you have to detail every single minute detail that happens in each chapter. But you should afford yourself the courtesy of knowing the significant events that will take the story and your characters in a new direction. Are they set in stone? No. But at least you have a story event that you are working toward. If it changes, it changes. But you have a goal to write toward in the meantime.
Ask yourself the basics:
What’s my character doing at the start of the story?
What inciting incident moves them onto a new track and changes their goal?
Who is their antagonist?
What is the antagonist doing to prevent the hero from reaching their goal?
What big turning point occurs that sends them in a new direction in pursuit of that goal?
What event takes place that makes them realize there’s no turning back?
What major event makes them almost give up and lose hope, but they get back up and fight anyway?
How do they confront the antagonist? How do they move forward after achieving their goal?
Now you have a map with major landmarks to write toward.
Don’t Be Afraid to Make Changes
A work of fiction is a living document. Things can be added, cut, changed, removed, or altered in any way they need to serve the story. And that’s the key: everything exists to serve your story.
Your rough draft is “rough” for a reason. You now have a manuscript that you can edit and change to make the story and characters stronger. The drafting process takes time, and as you write more, you’ll find a process that works best for you.
Since it’s your story, instinctually, you will know when something isn’t working, if a character seems out of place and should be removed, or if the dialogue isn’t realistic. Take your time and be brave enough to make the changes that will make your story stronger.
Enjoy the Process
You have to love your story and your characters. That love will shine through on the page. Unless you are writing for an assignment, you have free reign to write whatever you want, however you want, and that means you have the power to control character, story, dialogue, and all the other elements that go into your story.
Writing a novel, a play, a screenplay, even a short story or poem can be a lengthy, time-consuming, and often lonely task. If you loathe what you’re working on, then you won’t get very far. Love your story. Love your protagonist and antagonist. Love your setting and dialogue.
Finding that passion and enjoyment in what you’re writing will go a long way to making sure you not only complete the project but you’re proud of what you wrote and want to dive back in to make it even better the next time around.
If you are having problems with what you’re writing, take a step back and ask why. Why am I now enjoying this? What can I do to make this story more enjoyable and make it less of a task and more of an engaging creative escape?
I encourage all of you the next time you sit down to write – whether it’s a new story or one you’ve been working on – to ask yourself what you love about it and what motivates you to finish it. Then let your creativity and energy go to work.
This series has been a lot of fun, and I’ve enjoyed sharing my thoughts about story structure with you over the past few months. In two weeks, I’ll be starting a new series, so make sure to stop by and have a look.
Happy writing, and I’ll see you next time!
Check out the entire Story Structure series below:
Over the past two articles, we discussed what goes into creating the opening of your story.
Today, we’ll start to look at the Middle of the story. You can call it Act Two or even as some writers call it: The Muddle. This is where your hero’s path toward their goal should become increasingly challenging, where they begin to grow and change as a character, and the story continues to create conflicts for the main character.
The Stage Is Set
The Who, What, Where, When, and Why have all been established and your main character and their helpers have been launched from their ordinary existence into a new and challenging adventure. Your main character has a stated goal, and forces prevent them from quickly achieving what they want.
Once they cross over the threshold of Turning Point One, they have no entered a new phase of their journey. They may have to reassess how they are going about achieving their goal. They may realize that they can’t do things on their own and need some help. Maybe the antagonist has taken this moment to up the stakes just a little more, which only motivates the hero to keep going despite the odds.
At this point, you as a writer should know your main character fairly well. What they are willing to do and not do. How far they will go to get what they want. What decisions they will make – good or bad – that will impact them reaching their goal.
And The Hits Keep on Comin’
Obstacles. Lots of obstacles. The Middle of the story needs to present challenges and problems that make the hero challenge who they are and make them work to reach their goal. Think of this section of the story as the main obstacle course for your characters. They have to do things that they may not want to do, may not like, and may have to go outside their comfort zone to get to the next level to get one step closer to their goal.
Reality shows like American Ninja Warrior, Wipeout, and Holey Moley are examples of individuals having to traverse seemingly impossible odds to reach the intended goal and get the prize. Essentially, you are sending your characters through a similar maze filled with hazards, hits, and dangers that they must overcome in one way or another.
It’s okay for them to fail and have setbacks. In fact, that makes your hero more human if they don’t always get what they need or want on the first try. Creating a flawed character who doesn’t give up creates empathy and relatability between the character and the audience.
The Middle is where the bulk of the character arc takes place, mainly since it’s also where the bulk of the story happens. Your main character started out one way when we first met them at the beginning of the story, but now as they face new odds and problems, we should begin to see them develop and grow.
A stagnant and unchanging character lacks relatability. If your character experiences some traumatic event that launches them into the story and has zero effect on them, it’s hard to relate to that character. Now, suppose they are repressing their anger, sadness, or despair, affecting their judgment and ability to problem-solve. This creates an internal conflict that will eventually manifest itself since they will have to overcome those things in order to reach their goal by the end of the story.
Think of Mando’s arc in season one of The Mandalorian. How does he change when he meets and interacts with The Child for the first time? What choices does he make that affect his character arc throughout the season? How do his choices and changes affect the story?
Think about how the events in Jurassic Park affect Alan Grant’s relationships with and views on children. How do his interactions and perspectives change from the start of the film to the finale?
Keep Things in Motion
A story should be in constant motion. Each scene or chapter leading into the next. The protagonist should always be doing something. They should always be active in what’s going on. It is their story, after all.
As you develop the Middle, think about how to map out the story so events keep moving forward. That goal is still out there. The antagonist still exists to prevent the protagonist from reaching their goal. How can you keep your hero moving toward their goal while hitting them with problems that prevent them from reaching it?
Each scene or chapter should give the audience a new piece of the puzzle. Some new information that keeps them reading or watching. The hero is handed a note and reads it. What does it say? We don’t find out until several chapters or scenes later, but our curiosity has been piqued.
Keep the audience interested, and they’ll stay to find out what happens next.
During this time in the story, it can be easy to slowly go off course and get knee-deep in subplots or tangents. And while subplots are acceptable, it’s important not to lose sight of the real reason we’re in this story: to watch the hero go after their goal in the face of opposition.
Work through their story first. If you want to go back and add a subplot that ties into the main story afterward, go for it. Your main goal here is to develop the main character’s arc and their related story arc. It can be very tempting to go and take a detour with the main character’s best friend and see what shenanigans they’ll get themselves into. But unless that directly impacts the main story, hold off and see if that side trip is really necessary.
Think about movies you’ve seen where subplots pop up and then go nowhere, or they have no relation to the main story and just seem to be there to eat away screen time. Avoid these types of subplots and make sure that all roads point back to the hero.
In The Middle of Things
As I said before, the Middle is the longest part of any story. It can be almost an hour of what you see on the screen (and if it’s a long movie, even more). At the halfway point, there’s something known as the Mid-Point Sequence. The outcome affects what the hero does moving forward.
This is a big moment for the hero. After everything they’ve been through and worked through, things seem to be going their way for the most part. They still haven’t reached their goal, but now they are getting a better idea of how to get there.
This is also known as The Point of No Return. Once we get past the Mid-Point of the Middle, it’s now only a matter of time before the protagonist has to confront their antagonist head-on (literally or figuratively).
In Legally Blonde, the Mid-Point of the Middle comes when Elle gets chosen Callahan’s law internship. This is a big moment for Elle since she has been working to prove herself a viable Harvard law school student and future lawyer. Worth noting is that her antagonist, Warner, was also chosen along with his fiancée, Vivian (Selma Blair). I mention Vivian since she is an extension of the antagonist, and therefore can cause problems and issues for Elle on his behalf.
The sequence then leads to Elle, Warner, and Vivian arriving at the internship and finding out about the case they will be assisting on.
Elle is at the Point of No Return. She can’t back out now, and she can’t allow herself to fail without a fight.
Check out the clip below:
In two weeks, we’ll explore the second half of the Middle as we charge toward the End and the Climax of the story!
Last week, we talked about some of the elements that go into the Beginning of a story. Whether a novel, a short story, a screenplay, or a play, there are important items to consider from the start as you develop your story. In this post, we’ll talk about a few more things to consider as you work on creating the beginning of your story.
A Basic Formula
One of my screenwriting professors once wrote a basic formula on the board that holds true for pretty much all commercial stories:
Hero + Goal + Opposition = Conflict = Drama
Think about most movies or novels of today, and this formula rings true. We are presented with a Hero. That hero has a Goal they wish to achieve. There’s some Opposition in the way of the Hero achieving the stated goal. That Opposition leads to Conflict. And that Conflict translates to Dramatic tension.
As you develop your story, make sure that the three main ingredients are clear. Then you can find ways to create conflict that increases the dramatic tension of the story.
What is an Antagonist?
When we think about the concept of an Antagonist, we are usually drawn to the big guns: The Joker (The Dark Knight), Thanos (Avengers: Infinity War), Cruella DeVil (101 Dalmatians), Loki (Avengers), Ursula (The Little Mermaid), Dr. No (Dr. No), Hades (Hercules), Dr. Evil (Austin Powers), Scar (The Lion King), or the Evil Queen in Snow White. These are clear-cut antagonistic characters that oppose the goals of the hero in their respective stories.
However, an Antagonist doesn’t have to be a maniacal super-villain or an evil entity bent on world domination. Anyone in your story who opposes your main character’s goals and is a constant block to them achieving that goal is an antagonist.
In Legally Blonde, Elle Woods’s antagonist is her ex-boyfriend, Warner.
In Hairspray, Tracy Turnblad’s antagonist is Velma Von Tussle and her daughter.
In October Sky, Homer Hickam’s antagonist is his father.
Even if the antagonist wants what’s best for the main character, they can still be an antagonizing force getting in the way of their goal if what they want for the main character is in conflict with what the antagonist wants.
And that conflict leads to dramatic tension.
I think that because mainstream cinema is saturated with big-time antagonists because of all the superhero movies, it’s easy to forget that romantic comedies function on the formula of starting the partners off in an oppositional relationship. You’ve Got Mail. Crazy, Stupid, Love. Two Weeks Notice. The Proposal. 10 Things I Hate About You. All begin with oppositional relationships between the main couple.
How Do You Like Your Stakes?
Your protagonist wants something. Something big. If they get it, that’s great. But what if they don’t get it? What if all their attempts to achieve their goal fail? What will happen to them? Their best friend? Their family? Their home?
In other words: What are the Story’s Stakes?
Stakes keep things interesting. They keep the protagonist motivated to achieve their goal. They also keep the viewer/reader along for the ride. What should the stakes feel like?
Life or death. That’s what things should feel like to your hero if things don’t work out. I’m not talking literal life or death (unless your story is about that), but the odds have to be pretty steep against the main character once the inciting incident happens that we’re unsure how they’ll reach their intended goal.
If you have a basic idea of what your story is about, who your main character is, what their goal is, and where the story is going, you should start to brainstorm obstacles that the hero might face throughout the story. Each one should be unique, escalate the stakes, and help move the story and the hero’s character arc along.
The higher the stakes, the better the dramatic tension. Most sitcoms have low-stakes situations (Oh, no, the poker game and the dinner party are planned for the same night!). Dramas tend to have higher stakes (If we don’t find the killer soon, he’ll start killing a new victim at the top of every hour!).
Think of your favorite movie, or a movie you recently saw. What were the stakes for the main character? Were they high or low? I can tell you that in the new Angelina Jolie movie, Those Who Wish Me Dead, the stakes are very high. If a movie you watched has low stakes for the main character, did you lose interest?
Can I Help You?
All protagonists are on a journey. It may not be away from their uncle’s moisture farm on Tatooine to learn the ways of the Force, but they do have to move from point A to point Z by the end of the story.
Is anyone with them?
Best friends. Romantic partners. Sidekicks. Co-workers. Family. Neighbors. Are they people close to the main character that can assist them on their journey? Every character in a story needs to serve the hero and the story in some important way. Much like the protagonist and antagonist have a function in the story, the Secondary and Tertiary characters need to as well.
These characters also help in giving us insight into the main character, they help dimensionalize them, and make them more relatable to the audience. Who populates the world of the hero? Of the antagonist? What functions do those characters serve throughout the story?
The Big Moment
So, you’ve shown us a glimpse of the protagonist in their natural habitat. All is good in the world. And then…BOOM…something unexpected happens that throws their world into a tailspin. Now, they have to regroup and figure out how to fix, stop, or change whatever has just happened. The stakes are high. The Opposition is great. The way to achieving the goal seems impossible. But they have a few folks to help them along the way.
After a few missteps, things start to feel like they’re going the hero’s way. Maybe getting to that goal will be easier than they thought. All they have to do is…
Something HUGE comes out of nowhere and knocks the wind out of them. What they thought was the way forward is no longer the way forward. Everything they thought they knew, every decision they were sure was working, is suddenly turned upside-down.
Welcome to Turning Point 1.
It’s a big moment in the story. It’s something that shakes things up and takes the hero and the audience in a new direction. Here’s an example from Legally Blonde (get used to it, I’m gonna use it a lot in this series):
Hero: Elle Woods
Inciting Incident: Warner dumps Elle as he heads to law school instead of proposing to her.
Hero Goal: Get into and graduate from Harvard Law School (and reconnect with Warner).
Turning Point 1: At the first party of the semester, Warner tells Elle she’s not smart enough to get a prestigious internship with their law professor.
Notice how Elle is initially crushed by Warner’s words but then actively pushes through and uses his Opposition to her goal as motivation to keep going.
In the film, this is the start of Act 2. It’s the end of the Beginning, and the beginning of the Middle.
Watch some movies and determine what the initial stakes are for the hero and when Turning Point 1 happens. For most two-hour movies, it’s around the 25-30 minute mark.
We’ll talk about the Middle (of a story, not the series starring Patricia Heaton) in two weeks!