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.

Plan or Wing It?

You may have heard a lot about writers who wing it… they write as they go, without any planning. Called seat-of-your-pantsers, or pantsers for short, some of them really bring it. Their stories unfold like a blooming rose, with all of the elements of storycraft in place. However, most writers can’t do this. Stephen King is one of those gifted writers who can get all of the elements in place without the planning.

Most writers who write this way are not Stephen King. They may get all those pages written and find out that something is missing. Or they got repetitive. Or they went off on a tangent. The truth is, you don’t have to be a pantser to get that creative rush from your writing. Most authors benefit from planning, even a little. Planning can help you avoid those pitfalls and holes in your story. Like yesterday’s tips on characterization, you can have it all with just a little planning on your part.

It can be daunting to keep the subplots, the plot-behind-the-plot, the plot that your book is about, all the characters, their mistakes, flaws and goals, and everything else you need all in your head. You haven’t failed if you have to use a pad of paper, notes on your computer or sticky notes all over your work space. In fact, you may find that they make it easier for you.

JK Rowling, when writing her massive Harry Potter series, had notebooks full of backstory, characters, details about the wizarding world, and more. While you may not have to be that extensive, stay open to keeping notes and writing detailed character sketches. They will make your work easier. Can you imagine getting to the finished stage in half the time it might have taken you if you tried to keep it all in your head? It is possible, if you are organized and know your plot and characters.

I recommend a couple books that may help in this regard if you are unsure whether planning is really for you.

Nail Your Novel – Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence, by Roz Morris. Roz shares her secrets to finding the holes in your story and getting them plugged.

Story Engineering, by Larry Brooks. Larry has broken fiction writing into six core competencies that will keep your stories on track and riveting.

Of course, utilizing readers and writers’ groups are also very helpful in making sure you don’t have a gap or that your characters are well-fleshed and believable. There are many writers on Twitter and Facebook who form online groups and chats that can help them connect and critique each others’ work when a real life group is not available.

So, do you plan your story or wing it? Planning does not have to crush your creativity; in fact, it can enhance it. No plan is written in stone, so if the story changes, so can the plan. Plans can also help you when you get stuck or need inspiration. If you’ve never tried planning a book before, give it a try. You may be surprised. That germ of an idea may sprout and grow with a plan.

How Well Do You Know Your Characters?

Characters are your story. They plan the subplots and drive the plot through their mistakes and their moments of brilliance. So how well do you know them?

You want your characters to be memorable. You want your readers to understand what makes them tick and maybe wish they were real enough to invite to dinner. So how do you take a figment of your imagination and flesh them out?

One of the best ways is to really delve into discovering who they are. You can do this by writing detailed character descriptions, writing a brief journal in their own words where they talk directly to you, and so on. JK Rowling has reams of pages detailing all of her characters, even the minor ones and some that didn’t even make it into her Harry Potter books. She knew who they were related to, what they liked to do in their free time and their flaws. When it came time to put them into a book, she knew enough about them to give you insight with a few select words. James Frey, author of several writing books, such as How to Write a Damn Good Thriller, is an advocate of the journaling option. He gives several examples and comments about how sometimes the characters surprise him by what comes through in these pages. By writing these pages in the voices of your characters, you can really get inside their heads, which will make it easier for you to put them on the page realistically in your story.

Yes, this is extra work, but it pays off in your story. No one wants to read about a cardboard character. Do this with your hero, your villain, and any other characters that are important to the story. You’ll be surprised how much easier it is to put them on the page and have them do what you want them to do in a way that is organic to them. You’ll understand intimately what motivates them and you’ll know their flaws and their good points. This will all come across in your story, making the characters come alive to your readers. They’ll fall in love with them, fear them, or feel the loathing or pity you want them to feel for each particular character. Try it. You may be surprised at how well it works.

Setting the Scene

No matter what kind of story you’re writing, you need to set the scene. Have you ever read a book and felt like you were really there alongside the characters? That author set the scene so it became real to you. This is what you want to do, no matter if you are writing a fantasy, a horror novel or a romance.

Add a dose of reality. Sure, your fantasy world may have purple flying unicorns, but even the unicorn has to eat. Creating places in your story that your readers can identify with and then tweaking them to become fantastic, horrific or romantic will go a long way to making your world come alive. Describe the field, garden or house where the action is taking place and use words to make it out of the ordinary.

Take a look at the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling. In the first book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (or Philosopher’s Stone outside of the U. S.), Harry and Ron take on the twelve foot tall mountain troll inside a girls’ bathroom. We can all picture that easily; the row of stalls, the line of ceramic sinks and the metal pipes going into the wall. This scene uses a very common, utilitarian setting for a very unusual situation. How many mountain trolls have you met in the girls’ bathroom? Yet, it seems very believable to the reader.

J. K. Rowling didn’t spend several paragraphs describing the bathroom in minute detail, either. Small details appear throughout the action, like “The troll was advancing on her, knocking the sinks off the wall as it went.” That’s really all we need to know to picture the usual row of sinks in a public bathroom. The detail becomes a part of the action as the troll knocks the sinks off the wall.

Of course, there are times when it pays to spend time with a full description, but this is only appropriate when you are showing your readers the scene unfolding before your character’s eyes. In a later chapter, Harry, Hermione and Ron are trying to solve the puzzles to get to the stone. When they get to one of the puzzles, J. K. Rowling describes the scene that meets their eyes:

They reached the end of the passageway and saw before them a brilliantly lit chamber, its ceiling arching high above them. It was full of small, jewel-bright birds, fluttering and tumbling all around the room. On the opposite side of the chamber was a heavy wooden door.

In three sentences, the reader gets a vivid picture painted for them. Nice, tight writing gives the information required and no more. Don’t be afraid to jot down everything in your first draft; tighten it during your rewrites. Set the scene, but don’t let it control the scene.