Map Your Course

When you write a story, there are certain things readers expect. They want the story to grow. The main character should be challenged by something to make it interesting, after all, who wants to read about everyday life? We’re already living it. They want the main character to take charge and meet the challenge. Perhaps they solve a murder, or take down a group of terrorists. Or maybe they fall in love. No matter what your story is about, your main character should follow a map that directs the story.

You don’t necessarily need that map already diagrammed out in your head or on paper before you write, but if you don’t, you need to hold your story up to close scrutiny to see where it falls short.

What is the challenge that faces your character? Can they face it alone? Do they need help? Do they doubt themselves? How do they react when this challenge hits them in the face? Is it realistic or does your character solve every new problem by the end of the chapter? Does your pacing match the growing issue in the story?

Do you give your readers a break with something calming between heart-pounding scenes? Sometimes it’s nice to have a little breather so you’re ready to let the suspense build again. Does your character grow and learn? Do they come into their own and take charge? Or do you have someone coming in to rescue them at the last minute?

Going through your story either before or after you’ve written your first draft and mapping out the arc of the story, the characters, the chapters, and so on will give your readers a more satisfying journey.

If you take a look at ancient stories, they still follow the same arc. Story begins. Something happens. Main character reacts. Something else happens. Main character must decide to take charge because they’re the only one who can do it. Main character pursues the murderer, kills the monster, defeats evil, finds true love, etc. Everyone lives happily ever after, or at least, as happy as they can according to their circumstances. The reader finally puts the book down, happy with the journey they’ve just taken.

Subplots can fill any gaps and help tie major scenes together. Mapping out your story will show you where you need to strengthen those weak points or add a key element you forgot.

Mapping out can be done on the computer with a spreadsheet program, on a white board with markers, on a pad of paper or with post-its. Use what works for you. Jot down brief scene descriptions and place them in order. Use colored markers or change colors on the computer if it helps you track various story lines or characters. This will show you if you’ve leaned too heavily on your main character’s best friend or if you made a giant leap from one scene to another and dropped the plot ball.

Post-its or writing on white boards can work wonders for some writers, because it is easy to move scenes around if necessary. The end result is you get a map that leads you through your story so you can tighten it up and make it shine.

What is Your Story Built Upon?

Every story needs structure to be successful. Does your story have it?

Consider a house. To stand, it needs a basic structure. Those 2x4s support the walls, and the trusses support the roof. Your story is no different. It needs structure to stand up. Few stories can succeed when written in an offbeat sequence, just like few houses can stand if the underlying structure is weakened or compromised. Think of all the different housing styles you’ve seen, yet they all have the same underlying structure. Those 2x4s are still there.

Your story needs its structure to do the same thing. Most stories are based upon a four part structure. This structure has been implemented since man started storytelling. Before you complain that using a structure hinders your creativity, think of all those houses that look so different. Think of all the dogs on the planet; they all have the same bone structure, the same digestive systems, the same function, yet they can look as different as a Chihuahua does from a German Shepherd.

Likewise, readers expect a story to progress in a certain way. Let’s take a look at Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s (or Philosopher’s) Stone. In the first part of the book, we are introduced to Harry, our hero. We find out about his circumstances, and we empathize with him. We see that he does have abilities that he isn’t familiar with, and we eagerly go along with him as he goes off to Hogwarts to begin his new life. Then Harry hits some complications. He makes enemies. He must fit in all his schoolwork along with Quidditch practice. He finds out about the stone. Next, he has to find a way to prevent Voldemort from getting the stone, while the stakes get higher. Finally, he confronts Quirrel and Voldemort, prevents them from getting the stone, and life returns to some semblance of normal again.

Along with Harry Potter, other bestsellers follow this basic structure. Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, Jim Butcher’s Changes, and Michael Connelly’s The Lincoln Lawyer all follow the same basic structure. All of them sold well, and two have been made into movies. They wouldn’t have been half as successful if the authors decided to mess with the basic structure.

So, does your story have structure?

Every story needs structure. If you’re not sure about yours, your editor can help pinpoint it for you so you can plug up holes, rearrange portions if necessary, and make it strong. Please check out our services if you don’t already have an editor.