1. Re-evaluate what you’ve heard about story.

1. Re-evaluate what you’ve heard about story.

Lots of outliners teach that a story should have three acts.

That’s simply not true.

Regardless of how many acts or scenes your story has, this is what it needs to have in order to be effective and complete: an orientation to the world of the characters, an origination of conflict, an escalation of tension, rising stakes, a moment at which everything seems lost, a climactic encounter, a satisfying conclusion, and a transformation of a character or situation (usually both).

If you want to divide those into three acts, have at it.

Forget, too, what you’ve learned about stories building through “rising action,” as many popular plot graphs would have you believe. Stories build through escalating tension. Simply making more exciting things happen doesn’t ensure that readers will remain interested as the story progresses. Tightening the tension does.

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That means it’s equally unhelpful to think of your story as “character-driven” or “plot-driven.” Describing a character or simply telling us what’s happening will not drive your story forward. Tension comes from unmet desire. What readers need to know, then, is what your character wants but cannot get, and what he is doing to try to get it.

Popular outline and structure “formulas” are filled with misconceptions about what makes a story work. Rather than straightjacketing your story by forcing it into three acts, or trying to map it out as “character-driven” or “plot-driven,” take the organic approach by first simply asking yourself what is truly at the heart of your story.

Remember: What your story really needs is an orientation, a crisis or calling that disrupts normal life, relentless escalation of tension, and a satisfying climax. Along the way, you’ll need to make sure readers are compelled to empathize and connect with the main character(s), feel enough emotion to stay intrigued by the story, and gain enough insight to see the world with new eyes when they’re done.

Focus all of your attention at the heart of your story, keeping these essential elements and goals in mind, and you’ll begin to intuitively understand what needs to happen to drive the story forward.

When you’re informed about what makes a story work, you’re never writing from the seat of your pants. By letting your story develop organically, you’re delving deeper and deeper into the essence of what storytelling is all about.

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