For years now I’ve been interested in writing stories. The only problem is I didn’t know how to write them. So for years now I’ve been studying the art of story writing. I’ve read dozens of “how t”o books and analyzed hundreds of movies. However, all the research I’ve done has felt too vague and haphazard. So I’ve been trying to condense everything I’ve learned into one concise, step-by-step instruction manual. I haven’t finished writing that manual, but I’ve finished a very useful rough draft that I’d like to share with any other writing enthusiasts out there. Some of this is probably plagiarized, but I’ve read so many books and never keep bibliographies that I couldn’t site the sources if I want to. So I’m not claiming this is all original, and I’m not making any money off of it. So it doesn’t matter. At any rate, anything said in this guide you could probably find in 15 different guides anyway. Well, without further ado, here’s what I’ve got so far.
PICKING A STORY
The first step to writing a story is to decide what you’re going to write about. The difficulty in this isn’t trying to think of enough ideas. The difficulty is narrowing down one good idea out of an infinite number of possible ideas. This pool becomes smaller and more manageable when you take the position that there are only limited number of topics you should write about.
So what should you write about? To answer this question you need to take a step back and look at life in its entirety from a philosophical position. Human life is infinitely valuable. Human life is finitely short. Humans exist for a purpose. It’s infinitely important to fulfill that purpose in the limited amount of time we have here. If we accept these assumptions then we can immediately divide all writing into two groups: the kind that helps people achieve their potential (either directly or indirectly) and the kind that distracts/misleads people from fulfilling their potential.
Writing something that distracts/misleads people, no matter how eloquent, technically proficient, or entertaining it may be, defeats the purpose of existing in the first place. Thus, it defeats the purpose of writing. In other words, it’s a waste of time (infinitely valuable time). You can argue this point, but this writing guide will assume this is true.
So in order to decide what you should write you only need to ask yourself what the most important insight into life you have is. This approach immediately serves three purposes. It validates your work. It helps people fulfill their potential. It becomes more relevant and meaningful than all the vacuous entertainment out there (which includes 99% of the literature written). It gives you a framework with which to wrap your story around, which immediately starts taking the guess work out of writing your story. Your protagonist, antagonist, setting, tone, conflict, and plot will be defined by the message of the story.
A quick note before going on. Just because your story is meaningful it doesn’t have to be boring. In fact, the more important your message is, the more important it is that your story is entertaining. That way more people will be attracted to it and learn what insight you have to offer them.
Since we’ve established that your story must reflect/support your message we don’t even need to discuss tone or setting other than to mention that they have to logically reflect/support the message of the story.
What’s left is plot and character. This becomes even more simplified when you understand that the protagonist is determined by the message, and the plot is determined by the protagonist. Actually, your plot is the protagonist. Every plot point revolves around the protagonist’s journey to illuminate the message of your story. So when you’re planning your story, all you have to worry about is getting the protagonist from point A to point B. If you can do that everything else will fall in place.
This is even further simplified when you realize that the 1st and 3rd acts of any good story are always the same.
Act 1 always begins with a scene that introduces the protagonist and tells us the defining characteristics of his personality type, values, (signature) strengths/weaknesses, and above all, motivation. The protagonist’s personality type should be as true to real life as possible.
Almost all of the work of fleshing out the character’s personality type has already been done. Psychologists have identified 16 personality types that reflect every kind of person in the world (or close enough) using the Myers-Briggs personality inventory. Go to a site like http://www.personalitypage.com/high-level.html and pick a personality for your character. Then simply plagiarize those character traits and your readers will be amazed at how realistic your characters are.
Again, the values, strengths, weaknesses, and motivation will all support his role in illuminating the message of your story.
Once you’ve established who the protagonist is, where he’s at in life, and where he’s going in life the next thing you need to do is knock him off course. Something dramatic (the more dramatic and entertaining the better) happens to him that upsets the course of his life. At this point he needs to make a decision whether or not to take action to remedy this situation. In order for the character to make the decision and the reader to understand the decision you have to establish the stakes. What does the protagonist have to gain/lose by ignoring the problem or addressing it. The higher these stakes the more dramatic and thus the more entertaining the conflict will be. This is why so many are written so that if the character doesn’t risk everything he’ll die, or his loved one/s will die, or the world will be destroyed, or even the entire galaxy or universe. So there should only be one logical course of action. The protagonist must address the conflict. If he could just as well stay home then the reader could just as well put down the book.
Act 1 ends with the protagonist making his decision effectively stepping through a door and past the point of no return. Ultimately, that’s all there is to Act 1. You can have the protagonist waffle in his decision (creating tension) until something happens that forces him to decide to cross the point of no return.
You’re going to want to put other embellishments into Act 1, but now is not the time in the writing process to decide what that’s going to consist of. You need to finish building the entire skeleton of the protagonist’s plot first. Then, once that’s finished you can go back and wrap other characters and events around it. But until you’ve finished the protagonist’s plot skeleton you won’t know where those supporting characters and subplots are going to fit into the whole scheme of things.
That’s right. We’re skipping Act 2 for now and going straight to Act 3. There are two reasons for this. First, Act 3 is the same in every good story. So we can cover that right away and eliminate another 1/3 of your fear of managing a story. More importantly though, in the same way establishing the message of your story gave you a context for your story to fit into, finishing the story gives you context for Act 2 to fit into. This prevents you from getting halfway through the story and wondering where to go next. This way you know where to go next. And because you know where everything is going you can design everything to tie together efficiently without having to rewrite massive chunks of your story.
Act 3 begins with the climax of the story. This is when the protagonist confronts the true source of the conflict and overcomes it. He uses his signature strength to defeat the signature weakness of the antagonist. After that we get a brief glimpse into what the future holds for the protagonist. And without going into distracting details, that’s really all there is to Act 3.
Act 2 is the most difficult part of a story to write. Though, by following the rules stated previously in this guide and not just making it up as you go along Act 2 will be significantly easier to write. Ironically, Act 2 is the longest part of your story but also the least important. You could write a complete story with just Acts 1 and 3. The purpose of Act 2 is just to flesh out your characters, explore the intricacies of your message, build tension and make the story more entertaining.
Like Acts 1 and 3, Act 2 also follows a predictable pattern. Act 1 ended with the protagonist’s life being upset by the antagonist and the protagonist deciding to take action to overcome the conflict that is now present in his life lest he suffer the horrible consequences of inaction.
The protagonist starts off Act 2 at a disadvantage. The antagonist is already strong enough and established enough to be a problem for the protagonist, but more importantly, the antagonist already has a goal and a plan to accomplish that goal. The protagonist needs to figure out what/who the protagonist is and what can be done to stop it/him.
So the first thing the protagonist needs to do is try to get closer to the source of the conflict. He needs to kick ass and take names, and he does. He finds the closest source of the conflict to him (like henchmen) and kicks their ass and takes their names. The reader gets to see the protagonist in action and succeeding. The reader is rooting for the protagonist at this point and celebrating his victory and is intrigued by where the protagonist gets/what the protagonist learns. Seriously. Watch any movie, and this is always what happens.
Once the protagonist gets a leg up on the situation he uses the leverage he’s gained or the information he’s learned to take another step towards getting closer to the source of the conflict. However, now it’s time for the antagonist to score some points. The antagonist reacts to the protagonist’s advancement and deals a blow to him that sets him back. However, the protagonist uses his signature strength to overcome the antagonist’s signature weakness and make up the lost ground and take a little more.
You can repeat this back and forth trade off as many times as is logical for the protagonist to work his way into the antagonist’s lair. The story should progress as such: Act. React. Act. React. Act. React.
Act 2 always ends with the protagonist in the antagonist’s lair and beat down to his lowest point and one strike away from death. Act 3 begins with the hero using his signature strength to escape the clutches of death and deal the fatal blow to the antagonist.
All throughout Act 2, figuring out what the protagonist does and how he gets set back aren’t matters of pure magical, creative genius. These plot twists are mechanical and logical. They all stem from what you’ve established to be your protagonist’s and antagonist’s strengths, weaknesses, values, and motives. They’re also determined by what message you’re trying to illuminate via your story. The more you define these variables before even writing Act 1 the easier it’ll be to write the plot points in Act 2. The more you establish tone and setting the more you’ll narrow down the scope of potential plot points as well.
The key word to remember from beginning to end of your story is, “logical.” When writing Act 2, ask yourself what kind of conflicts your protagonist would logically have to go through to get from point A to point B. And every action along the way must be logical reaction to the previous action.
Likewise, every action (regardless which character is performing the action) must be the result of logical thinking. Everything people do is the result of thoughts they think. One of the big differences between a good story and a bad story is a bad story focuses on the characters’ actions while ignoring the motives in their minds. A good story focuses on the thoughts of the characters, and the action is incidental to those thoughts. By basing the course of your story on the thoughts of the characters will help you make those characters real as well as ensure the sequence of action unfolds logically.
Once you’ve finished this much of the exercise, write a synopsis of your story. This will help you stay focused as you flesh out your story. And there’s a lot of flesh you can throw into your story.
Throughout the course of your story you can always at incidental conflicts that have no impact on the story other than to build suspense. If it’s essential for the protagonist to storm a castle and rescue the princess he can encounter dozens of minor-conflicts between henchmen on his way to the princess. If he’s chasing the antagonist in a car you can throw in policemen and bag ladies he has to avoid. These minor conflicts don’t serve the plot, but they add tension. And these are easiest to add after you’ve established the real plot points in the story.
If you’re writing a play with only one or two characters your story is finished. If you want to add supporting characters to help/hinder the protagonist on his journey from point A to point B they’ll be easiest to integrate coherently if you do it after establishing the skeleton of the protagonist’s journey. Just remember, their presence must be logical. Their actions/reactions must be logical. And you should only use the bare minimum to accomplish your goal. And make sure every character in the story is based on one of the 16 personality types.
Also, the most ridiculous plot twists (even dues ex machina events) become completely logical if they’re foreshadowed.
Every plot point must have consequences. If they can be removed without effecting the story then remove them. Also, each consecutive plot point must have bigger consequences. If the character starts out the story defending his village then he should be defending the entire realm or world by the end by the climax of the story.
When the protagonist gets a set back it’s more of an incidental inconvenience. Remember, the protagonist has a goal that he’s motivated to achieve. When he’s set back it prevents him from accomplishing that goal. He’s stopped dead in his tracks and has to change gears and try to work around that door that just closed. And remember, if the protagonist never gets what he expects then neither will the reader, and the story will never become predictable.
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