THE TITLE MAKES it look like I am giving you a formula. But I’m not.
There are no formulas for good stories.
If anyone tells you there is, you can safely ignore him or her. Stories need to be free-flowing and unpredictable. Predictability is the enemy.
But there are elements that readers really, really like. These have been confirmed over and over again, and it would be crazy to disregard them.
In fact, readers and viewers like them so much that they appear in a huge proportion of the books and movies which make it big.
So the list of things I am going to give you below is not a formula you use to construct a tale. It is more like a popularity chart. It's designed to get you thinking about elements you might like in the story you write.
The version below is based on an idea originally mooted by Aristotle, the ancient Greek thinker, but much refined by other writers, and influenced by classic Asian stories I have read.
This is the fifth part of a series on how to write novels and screenplays.
Part one dealt with defining the word “story”.
Part two dealt with understanding why stories matter.
Part three dealt with choosing a title.
Part four dealt with the importance of setting aside enough time to get to the end of the project.
SEVEN ELEMENTS YOU FIND IN POPULAR STORIES
First, you need to have an interesting main character. This should be obvious, but you’d be surprised how many submissions I get which miss this point.
A central character is vital. If a book is a journey, then you need a guide to take the reader on his or her travels.
(My name is Frodo and I will be your guide.)
How not to do it: Earlier this year I received a screenplay from a group in which the main character dies halfway and a new main character takes over.
When I pointed out that they had made a fundamental error, they said they were experimenting with “a new way of telling stories”.
No, they weren’t. They had missed the most basic point of storytelling, which is to capture a turning point in a person’s life.
Can you have lots of different main characters?
The answer is no. Not until you are an experienced writer. Leave that idea until your third or fourth or fifteenth book or screenplay.
If you are already at that point, then yes. Read The Accidental by Ali Smith or The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver for great models of how this can be achieved.
The answer is also yes. There’s a traditional Asian story structure that lends itself to multiple main characters, but we’re going to leave that for a later section.
Second, you need to tell the reader that this character has something interesting to do: a problem to solve, a future to create, a need to fulfill, a mission to accomplish, a place to reach.
He or she wants something, or needs something, or has to get something important done.
Pro tip: Writers often like to give the character an external problem (“I came home from work and my house had disappeared!”) and an internal problem (“I’m a nervous person, scared of everything, because of something that happened when I was eight.”)
The external problem works on the reader’s conscious mind, but the internal problem works on the reader’s subconscious mind.
The reader thinks the external problem is the key element, but the internal one really is.
External problem: Young Harry Potter realizes that he is not a normal human being and needs to learn what it is to be a wizard.
Internal problem: Harry is in emotional pain because someone did something awful to his family and he needs to find out what it was and resolve the issue.
Third, you need a dramatic event which starts a clock ticking.
For example, the main character gets a letter inviting her to an unexpected meeting.
Or the main character loses his job and is offered a new one.
Or she notices a strange new neighbor has arrived in her street.
Or Gandalf arrives at his door with a mission for him.
Life for most people consists of drifting, followed by sudden punctuations of drama. We need to reflect that in our stories—but with less “real-time” drifting and more drama.
Fourth, we should learn about an enemy of some sort who works very hard to stop the main character achieving his or her goals.
Except for books and movies for very small children, it is almost impossible to write a story without a “bad guy”. Professors of storytelling call this person the antagonist, and the main character the protagonist.
Pro-tip: Many writers try to write non-human antagonists. For example, in disaster movies, the weather or a great storm or a hurricane could be the antagonist.
Don’t do this.
Audiences and readers want human antagonists.
Fifth and Sixth, the two problems in part two above need to be resolved—and particularly the internal problem. For example, our nervous protagonist could find the missing house, and more importantly, the missing courage.
These elements often work best if they are interwoven. There needs to be a climax, an action high point in the story where the main character finally triumphs over the difficulties.
Sometimes I tell my students to think of these two elements as the “inside change” and the “outside change”.
Simba gets his courage back (the inside change) and peace returns to Pride Rock (the outside change).
Aristotle called these changes the crisis and the climax.
And seventh, there’s traditionally an ending where the achievements are celebrated, and this often involves the main character being reunited with people (usually family members) from the start of the story.
Pro-tip: In the past, writers liked to make a lot out of this: in The Lord of the Rings, for example, there’s a big chunk of story after the climax (the destruction of the ring in the volcano).
But these days, we are scared of forcing readers/ viewers to suffer an anti-climax (a long period when the excitement level has fallen) and so we make this part, the resolution, very short.
Now I said earlier that I didn’t like formulas.
This Aristotle-based plan above is not a formula for writing a story. It’s really a list of elements that story-readers love.
So don’t use the system above as a formula.
Use it as a checklist.
Write your story first, and if the flow or shape doesn’t seem to work, then consider the points above; see if help from Aristotle can solve your problem.
Do you have a recognizable main character? Does he or she have an interesting challenge? Is there an exciting climax?
The above is an example of story planning. People who make sure they do some story planning never get stuck.
They never run out of incidents to write about, and their stories are well organized, without unsatisfying loose ends.
But what about getting the basic idea first?
Some people reading this may not know what to write about. Others may have quite a few ideas, but are not sure which one to pick.
Next Friday, we'll look at having a great idea for a story.