We are readers first, so it’s easy to assume that once you’ve read thousands of stories, it will be simple to write a story. I certainly used to think that way!
Whenever I teach writing – at a convention, a symposium, or during private coaching – I start off with the question, “What makes a story?”
Almost inevitably I get responses like climax, rising action, characters, setting, and the rest of the answers so many of us learn while we teach ourselves and/or are taught by someone else the art and craft of writing.
At this point I nod, say, “Thank you for that,” and then add, “but you’re wrong.”
All those items people mention are great. But while they are generally in a story, they are not the story itself. They are milk and flour and eggs and sugar – all of which are required items for a cake, but put any or all of them out on little silver platters for your next party and see how many takers you get for your version of “cake.”
Those things you set out are in it. They ain’t the thing itself.
So what is a story?
Most of us actually know what a story is on a subconscious level – we tell stories all the time without thinking about them. But consciously knowing what makes a story will a) focus your efforts, and b) make it much more difficult to achieve that blissful state known as “writer’s block.”
So here’s what a story truly is:
- A beginning.
- A middle.
- An end.
That said, the above definition of a story is still not very helpful, is it? So let me see if we can explain it a bit better. Let me tell you not the chemical attributes of the cake, but why each makes the cake more delicious.
Let’s say it this way:
Every story is about a guy (or a girl) who…
… wishes for something (the beginning),
… desires something (the middle),
… achieves that thing – or doesn’t (the end).
And because I’m a baker who wants more cake in the world (if you don’t like cake, you are Pure Evil), I will discuss these further so you can make your own cakes, and spend less time in the kitchen doing so.
1. A GUY WHO
Every story starts with a PERSON. Every. Single. One.
[N.B. For clarity and convenience I call this person my “Guy Who,” and I use “guy” instead of “gal,” or “cis-something” or any other nomenclature simply because it’s what pops in my head. Fill in your own preference, and I won’t judge you for using it because it’s easiest for you; just as I hope you won’t judge me ill for using this one.]
At this point in my teaching, people raise their hands to show me examples of movies or books that are not about people. The movie WALL-E is an example that pops surprisingly often; “The main character isn’t a person, it’s a robot!” is a common refrain.
Ditto any other movie about “non-human” characters. Be they aliens, monsters, inanimate objects, or anything else – they are either people on their face, or people hiding in a costume.
And this makes sense, too. Picture what a robot (for ease of use) is really about. The “story” of WALL-E then goes like this:
“Once upon a time, there was a trash-compacting robot on a post-apocalyptic Earth. It [NOT “HE” OR “SHE” – if you’re contending it’s a robot, then you have to follow the Official Robot Rules of Reality™] was a robot that had been design to compact trash, so that is what it did. One day it stopped because it broke and there was no one to fix it.” ALT ENDING: “One day it stopped compacting trash because the sun went nova and consumed Earth.”
This is the only way a “story” about a real robot could go. Because robots (or sharks or lamps or whatever) have no motivation beyond stimulus-response (on a biological level), or laws of physics (on a mechanical level).
Even if you’re talking about dolphins – creatures we know have a high level of cognitive function, you’re not telling a story about Krtchkcck-whistle, King of the Lower Regions, Finder of Shells and Survivor of the Great Fish Famine in the Year 87423 of Our Lord Pchkckckckc; you’re telling a story about frickin’ Flipper, who is basically an anthropomorphized (or anthropoporpoiseized – yeah, I went there) version of Michael Phelps with a hero complex.
In sum: EVERY. STORY. STARTS. WITH. A. PERSON.
But what does that person do?
2. THE WISH (the beginning)
A wish is that state of wanting something without actually working for it. I wish I could play the harp – indeed, every time I hear one during a wedding or at the mall (oddly, malls seem to love harps), I think, “I wish I could play the harp. So beautiful.”
Total harps I own: zero.
Total harp lessons I have taken: zero.
Number times I have even just googled, “Is it hard to play the harp: ZERO.
And this kind of wish is how all stories start.
An easy example is STAR WARS: A NEW HOPE. Luke Skywalker starts out the story wishing he could join the Resistance and become a Jedi like his father, and thus escape the farming life and stop having to drink blue milk every morning.
But he does nothing to accomplish it.
In fact, Obi Wan even says, “You must come with me and learn the ways of the Force” – literally offering to pave the way for Luke to have his wish and more.
What does Luke say? “I can’t go. I have to do Farming And Whatnot. Who will drink all the blue milk if I’m gone?” He literally has so little motivation that EVEN GETTING HIS WISH FOR FREE IS TOO MUCH WORK.
But then something happens. Sometimes it’s an obvious thing – Luke’s family are murdered by stormtroopers, and all the farm equipment is destroyed, thus destroying his reasons to stay – and other times the Guy Who just changes his mind for no discernible reason. Either way, our Guy Who moves to…
3. THE DESIRE (the middle)
What is the difference between a wish and a desire? Simple: a wish is something you do alone in your room while staring at the ceiling and picking lint out of your navel. A desire is something you get out and work for.
Everything Luke does for the middle 60% of the movie is about working, about checking off the steps to reach his goal. It’s literally a “to do” list:
MY DESIRE: To join the Resistance and become a Jedi like my father
I need: lightsaber.
Got from Ben. Check. [Note to self: get intergalactic whiffle ball if possible.]
I need: the Resistance (hard to join if it’s not there!)
To Do: Rescue princess
Needed: Yavin (because Resistance is there)
To Do: Destroy Death Star
I need: to use the Force (’cause that’s what makes a Jedi, yo!)
To Do: Practice with whiffle ball.
To Do: Listen for Force communications, which is high-level stuff.
I need: blue milk (I’m surprised how much I miss it!)
Action item: find blue cow (maybe on Yavin?).
A lot of people dread “the middle,” because for them, it turns into a painful slog wherein they have to figure out “middle stuff.” But if you think of it like a To Do list, it’s a lot easier. In fact, the middle is the coolest part!
Think of any movie trailer. Think of any description on the back of any book cover. IT IS ALL ABOUT THE COOL BITS IN THE MIDDLE. No end bits, hardly anything from the beginning.
The middle, the desire, isn’t the hardest part – it’s the best part.
And after the work is done, our Guy Who moves on to…
4. THE ACHIEVEMENT, or FINAL FAILURE (the end)
The end is simply the answer to the question, “Did our Guy Who achieve/earn his wish?”
Did Luke become a Jedi? Yes. The minute he checked off all those columns, he was a Jedi. And, interestingly, this happened in the very movie where it was set up. People say he wasn’t a true Jedi in the first movie, but I disagree:
Did he defend against intergalactic whiffle balls (LIGHTSABER ACHIEVEMENT UNLOCKED!), then turned off his targeting computer and fully entrusted himself to the Force (HALLUCINATION ACHIEVEMENT UNLOCKED!). He was a Jed.
He set all the conditions, and fulfilled all the requirements. He was basically lacking a cool black outfit and [SPOILER!] a final fight with his dad. But those were just putting the last icing flourishes on the cake.
Of course, the opposite is true – our Guy Who can also fail.
The moment Michael Corleone closes the door in his wife’s face at the end of the book/movie THE GODFATHER, he literally closes the door on the embodiment of his dream, and the desire that has created all the drama of the story as he constantly grapples with the question of what matters most: family, or Family.
THE GODFATHER is about Michael Corleone, a Guy Who wants to be good.
He failed. And that’s a story, too.
Stories are magic in effect. The best ones weave themselves into our lives, and become a part of our emotional and spiritual DNA – literally, for DNA exists primarily to map out the next generation’s characteristics by weeding out the ones that don’t work as well, and thus ensure our children’s survival; and what do we do with our best stories if not pass them down to our children as maps for them to follow as they live out their own stories?
Stories are magic. But only in effect. In creation and in practice, they are fairly simple. And that makes sense, because every one of us has a lifetime of creating our own stories.
I (my own personal Guy Who) want to…
… get a job.
… get married.
… have kids.
… beat that one friggin’ level on Call of Duty.
You know, the Big Ones.
We create our stories. We are, in fact, the embodiment of Story, with a beginning (birth into a world of potential wishes and dreams), middle (our lives as we define who we want to be and who we are willing to work to become), and end (that last moment, that last breath, where we pass away with a smile or a frown).
And when we remember that, we realize that we have all the tools we need to make up new stories.
Now go forth… and write.
Does thinking about story structure help you to feel more confident writing yours? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.
If you would like to find out more of Michaelbrent’s tips and tricks for story writing, check out his online course at michaelbrentcollings.thinkific.com, or visit him at his website, WrittenInsomnia.com – “Stories That Keep You Up All Night.”