How to Tell a Story
By Mark O’Bannon
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“Once upon a time, something happened to someone, and he decided that he would pursue a goal. So he devised a plan of action, and even though there were forces trying to stop him, he moved forward because there was a lot at stake. And just as things seemed as bad as they could get, he learned an important lesson, and when offered the prize he had sought so strenuously, he had to decide whether or not to take it, and in making that decision he satisfied a need that had been created by something in his past.”
– Gary Provost
Storytelling is one of the oldest pastimes. Everyone loves a great story, but it’s often difficult to find someone that’s good at telling one. The best way to learn how to tell a story is through practice (write a thousand words a day) and by studying the subject.
Most people, unfortunately never take the time to learn basic storytelling techniques, and when they try to tell a tale, they find themselves losing their audience. Others refuse to study writing because they fear they will lose their creativity by following formulaic story structures. However, like building a house, there are definite things that you need to know in order to tell a story. Learning how to read blueprints, how to swing a hammer, and how to install a roof are as essential to a carpenter as plot, character and dialogue are to the author.
To master the art of storytelling you need to learn three things: How to come up with a great idea, how to structure a story design and how to write beautifully. Ideas need to be original and they need proper development. Basic story structure can be constructed using the Story Outline Worksheet at the end of this booklet. Beautiful writing is acquired through passion, practice and an understanding of writing techniques.
What is a story?
A story is narrative description of a character who is trying to solve a problem.
Your Goal: To Elicit Emotion
Through identification with the protagonist, the audience experiences the story as if it’s happening to them. One of your goals as a writer is to elicit emotion in the audience. This is accomplished through a careful choreography of the various components of story.
Premise – This is your story idea. All stories begin with a unique concept. 95% of writers fail at the premise. Either their idea is poor, or it has been done before (cliché), or it hasn’t been developed properly. The single most important decision for a writer when developing an idea is choosing what genre to use.
Plot – This is not only the sequence of events that occur in the story, but also the sequence of revelations, which cause characters to take new actions. Plot walks on the two “legs” of actions and revelations. A good plot is based on surprises. The opponents provide the revelations.
Character – The people involved in the story. The protagonist is the hero. The antagonist is the opponent. Characters are defined by their relationship to each other, and by their actions. The principle of minimal characters says that you want the least number of characters to tell a story. For a novel or screenplay, a good mix is: One main character, three opponents and six minor characters.
Setting – The time period and location where the story takes place. It will include the lands, peoples, technologies, cultures, social systems, and things like the weather. Some genres place great emphasis on the setting, such as Science Fiction and Fantasy.
Theme – The author’s view of the proper way to act in the world. Theme is not “sending a message.” Theme is best communicated through the actions of the characters.
Structure – The strategic design of a story. The elements of premise, plot, character, setting, theme, and genre all affect the design of a story. Structure is how everything is put together.
Genre – These are different kinds of popular story forms, like action, mystery, romance, science fiction, fantasy, crime, westerns, horror, comedy, etc. Combining genres is a useful technique to broaden the audience for screenplays, but mixing genres for novels – known as crossover fiction, may tend to limit the audience and should be done with care. Each genre is a complex story form with unique story beats, structures and themes.
Implicit Promise – This is an unconscious agreement made with your audience when a reader picks up your book or when a person sits down in a theater. The implicit promise is that this story will make them think and feel. The audience will be entertained, thrilled, intellectually stimulated or scared – but always absorbed. When writing a story, ask yourself, “What mood do you want your audience to leave the theater or close the book with?”
Story Question – This is the question raised in the mind of the audience by your story.
Central Dramatic Question – Every story and every scene will create a question in the audience’s mind. Who will win the fight? Should they win? Who is right?
Log Line – A one line description of what the story is about. There are many ways to describe your idea, but basically, you can say that your story is about a ___________ (character) who wants ___________ (desire).
Scenes – The basic building block of a story is the scene. Scenes are action. Scenes are where characters do things and feel things. In a scene, characters act and react. Every scene has event and emotion. Scenes typically end with a revelation.
Narrative Summary – This is a summary of some of the events that takes place in the story. Narrative summary is used when the writer wants to cover a lot of ground quickly and when action is not necessary. In a scene, you are showing. In narrative summary, you are telling.
Revelation – This is a significant piece of information that causes the character to act in a new way in the pursuit of his desire. Actions and revelations drive the story forward. Mysteries make the greatest use of revelations, but all stories have them. The quality of your story is in many ways dependent upon the quality of your revelations.
Conflict – This is what drives the story. There should be some kind of tension on every page of a novel. Every scene must have conflict. Conflict is more than physical fighting or verbal arguing. Conflict can also come from tension, suspense, subtext, or hidden emotions. Layered conflict is where there are more than one conflicts present in the same scene. There are three main kinds of conflict: Man vs. Man; Man vs. Environment; and Man vs. Himself.
Central Conflict – This is the main conflict of the story. Who is fighting whom over what?
Inciting Incident – Also known as the inciting event, this is an event that occurs in the beginning of a story. It starts the action and may or may not be connected to future events.
Weakness – A character flaw that is ruining the character’s life. Not apparent at the beginning of the story, the character’s weaknesses are gradually revealed over the course of the story. The opponents are those best able to “attack” the hero’s weaknesses. When the character’s weakness becomes apparent to the hero, it leads to a self-revelation. Not all weaknesses are negative. Weaknesses can be made out of positive traits. There are two types of character weaknesses: Psychological Weakness – This character flaw harms the character. A few examples could be: Shyness, letting others take advantage of you, not believing that dreams come true, etc.
Moral Weakness – This kind of character flaw harms the character and other people. A moral weakness will expand the scope of the story, since it affects multiple people. How is your character living at the expense of others? Examples could be: Arrogance, ingratitude, or cruelty.
Moral Argument – This is the argument made between the protagonist and antagonist. It explains why they’re doing what they’re doing and it’s used to form the theme of the story. Average stories are about who succeeds. Better stories are about why someone should succeed.
Moral Choice – This is something that brings out the character’s moral weakness. In order to defeat the opponent, the main character will become desperate (because of failure) and will begin to go against his values. The character’s allies will often challenge the hero when the character “steps over the line.” Eventually, the character will become aware that he has a choice between two ways of acting. So in the beginning of the story, the main character is fighting against the opponent. In the middle of the story, the character will be against his friends. In the end, the character will be fighting against himself. This is how his moral weakness is exposed.
Values – These are belief systems that influence the character’s behavior. Values are what the character considers important. Examples could be: Honesty, cruelty, faithful, logical, friendly, cynical, selfish, disciplined, etc.
Value Oppositions – These are the ways that character values come into conflict with each other. Better stories often place the characters and their values in opposition to one another. It isn’t necessary to give negative values to villains and positive values to the hero.
Backstory – The history of what has happened before the story begins. Usually it’s best to restrict this to important information. Do not include much backstory in the beginning of your story because it will kill your action. Backstory should be given out a little bit at a time.
Dialogue – The words spoken by the characters in a story. Dialogue should not be used to drive a story forward (this is the job of structure). Dialogue is telling, as opposed to showing, which is what action is for. Action is created through structure. Dialogue is important because it is the best way to communicate the character’s value system. There are three kinds of dialogue: Story dialogue, which simply illustrates what is happening in the story; Moral dialogue, which is used for the moral arguments of the characters; and Key Words and Taglines, which are used to carry meaning symbolically and thematically. Dialogue is not speech. Dialogue sounds like it could be real speech, and it is always more intelligent, wittier and more meaningful than real speech. Be careful not to simply express the obvious. This is known as writing “on the nose.”
Description – The way you describe what happens in the story. There are many kinds of description, such as the description of a setting, a character, an object or actions. Use specific details to anchor your story in reality and use all of the senses.
Metaphor – An advanced technique which is used to express something that the words do not literally denote. By coming up with metaphors, you can more rapidly communicate meaning on several levels at once.
Subtext – This is where the characters don’t say what they really want. It’s used to add subtlety to a story, but it can dilute your conflict. This kind of communication is caused by fear, pain or embarrassment. Give your characters hidden desires, put them in conflict with each other, and then have the characters use an indirect plan to get what they want.
Exposition – Necessary background information needed to understand what’s happening in a story. Exposition should be carefully sprinkled throughout the story, not lumped in large boring sections, especially at the beginning of the story. One of the best ways to kill your story is to include too much exposition. When handled properly, exposition can be turned into a valuable asset. The way to do this is to treat the information as a revelation. Why do the characters need to know this now?
Viewpoint – This is how the story is perceived by the audience. Also called point of view (POV), different kinds of viewpoints were invented in order to tell more complex stories. Objective or camera-eye, is an objective view of the story and doesn’t enter any character’s mind. Classical omniscient is where the author can enter any character’s mind. Contemporary omniscient is where the author can only enter one mind. Third person singular is a story told through the mind of only one character. Third person multiple is a story told through the eyes of more than one character. Many authors use contemporary omniscient to set the stage and then zoom into one character’s POV.
Person – The way you describe the main character of the story. There are advantages and disadvantages for each system. First person uses “I” to describe the story. Second person uses “you” to describe the story. Third person uses “he/she” to describe the story. First person is typically used in mysteries. One advantage of first person is that you can create an unreliable narrator, which is where the main character is not telling the truth about the story. Second person is typical with interactive storytelling games.
Tense – This is used to describe how immediate the action of the story is. Present tense (I go, he/she goes) is used in screenplays and synopses. Past tense (I went, he/she went) is the most common in novels.
Levels of POV – This is how deeply the writer delves into the perspective of the main character. The range of depth goes from camera-eye to actions to perceptions to thoughts to emotions to deep immersion. Writers typically shift from the surface level to the deeper levels and back throughout the story. Deep third person is the most intimate and personal type of POV. It’s where all of the actions, perceptions, thoughts and emotions of the character are fully engaged.
Narrator – The use of a narrator in a story can be powerful, if it’s handled well. A storyteller allows the writer to present the actions of the hero along with commentary on those actions. The use of a storyteller puts the audience in that character’s mind, blurring reality (because the narrator may not be telling the truth – even to himself). Another advantage of a narrator is when your story takes place over a large time span or across several locations. The storyteller can help to bring a fragmented story together.
Story Length – How long should your story be? It all depends on what kind of story you’re telling. Short-short stories are under 2,500 words. Short stories can range from 2,500 to 7,500 words. Novellettes are from 7,500 to 20,000 words. Novellas are from 20,000 to 50,000 words. Novels are from 70,000 to 90,000 words. The genre will affect the length of the story, too. Young Adult novels tend to be shorter than novels and can be 50,000 to 80,000 words long. Science Fiction and Fantasy novels tend to be longer and can be up to 125,000 words long. Screenplays are 110 to 120 pages long.
Keep it Short
If you are a first time, unpublished author, then you need to keep the word count down. The higher the word count, the less likely it will sell. Longer novels exist, but these are usually from established writers. If you have trouble keeping your word count down, take a look at removing unnecessary exposition. Some editors recommend cutting the first three chapters out of a novel, since new writers tend to put in too much exposition.
When reduced to its essential elements, the format of storytelling has not changed in thousands of years. All stories have a protagonist (main character), the quest (goal), trials (opposition) and the resolution, positive or negative. Many variations are possible within this format, but the basic structure is the same.
Stories consist of three parts: The beginning, the middle, and the end. Traditionally, this is why stories are broken down into three sections. There are six parts of a story contained within these three sections:
- Introduction – Inciting Incident.
- Rising Action – Significant Event.
- Complications – Plot Twists.
- Crisis – Decisive Moment.
- Climax – Confrontation.
- Resolution – Outcome.
Section I (The beginning) has three goals:
The first goal is to introduce the setting and the main characters. The second goal is to hook your audience with something that’s exciting and interesting. The third goal at the start of a story is to introduce the opponent and the desire line (story goal). All three of these goals should be accomplished as soon as possible.
The Setting & Main Characters
The first goal begins with the setting, which is where the story takes place. The setting is usually determined by the genre and it can have a tremendous affect on the way the story is told. The setting consists of a unique combination of the lands, peoples, technologies and the culture of the story world. The introduction of the setting doesn’t need to be in the first paragraph of the story, but the audience should quickly get a sense of where the story is taking place.
The characters are the people in the story. There are many kinds of characters. The main character is known as the protagonist. The opponents are known as the antagonists. Minor characters may include allies or enemies. Very minor characters are like extras in a movie – they perform a simple function and then leave.
Characters are defined by what they do, not by who they appear to be. A person’s actions speak louder than everything else. Many people begin describing a character by their appearance, but in reality these physical traits are the least important things about a person. Characters should enter a story doing something. Characters are also defined by their relationships with the other characters in the story.
Good characters should have a weakness (sometimes called a character flaw), which is ruining their life (such as arrogance, selfishness, etc.). This weakness will be the source of the character’s need (which is to overcome the weakness). The character will not be aware of his weakness at the start of the story. Together with the self-revelation at the end of the story, these three elements will form the character arc, which creates character change.
A story is about how a character changes by the events in the plot, or said another way; a story is about how a character overcomes his failings. The start of the process of character change occurs at the beginning of a story and it is realized at the end with the self-revelation.
The plot consists of the sequence of events that take place in the story, along with the sequence of revelations in the story. The plot directs what happens in the outer story. This forms the physical part of the story. It’s often called the spine of the story.
The characters experience what happens in the inner story, by how they react to events of the plot. This forms the emotional part of the story. This part of the tale is also called the heart of the story.
In this way, a good story will consist of these two elements (the spine and the heart) developing at once. Desire drives the spine of the story. Weakness/Need drives the heart of the story.
The audience should identify with the main character of your story. This means that they experience emotions through your character. When the main character feels something, the audience should feel something too.
Initially, there are three techniques to cause the audience to identify with the main character: Make the character suffer; put the character in danger, and make the character admirable in some way.
For example, in the novel, “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone,” Harry suffers under the horrendous treatment of his family, being forced to live in a small closet under the staircase. Harry is in constant danger from his bullying cousin and from the unjust treatment of his aunt and uncle. Harry is admirable because he doesn’t complain about his life, choosing to suffer in silence. All these elements create tremendous sympathy for him, and the audience identifies with Harry.
This initial identification with the protagonist can wear off, so you’ll need more to retain the audience’s attention. Over the course of the story, the audience will identify with two things: The desire and need of the main character.
Plot vs. Character: Is the plot or the character more important? In a good story, they will both support each other. Since the plot is determined by what the characters do and the characters are defined by their actions, they are, in a sense, the same thing. Plot and character are two sides of the same coin.
The second goal in the start of the story is to hook your audience with something that’s exciting or interesting. One of the best ways to hook the audience is by introducing an element of mystery into the opening.
Sometime after the opening of the story, the inciting incident will occur. The inciting incident is an event that drastically alters the character’s life, propelling them into the story. The event must be something that will break the character out of the paralysis he’s in at the start of the story. The inciting incident could be something trivial or dramatic.
Character motivation is one of the most important aspects of a story. The inciting incident must be compelling enough to give the character an intense desire. This desire should be strong enough to propel the protagonist through the entire story.
Desire & Opponent
The third goal in the start of a story is to introduce the opponent and the desire line (story goal). Opponents are often introduced secretly in the start of a story without anyone realizing that they are the main antagonist. These kinds of stores are often mysteries, but they can also be stories where the author wishes the villain to remain secret. In any event, the villain must always be introduced, even if they are simply appearing on stage just to say hello. Often they are brought into a story discretely, simply appearing in the background. In other cases, an opponent may be shown as the obvious antagonist in the story.
The desire line is the story goal. The character’s desire must be specific and obvious. Stories are about characters who are trying to solve a problem. There usually will be something blocking the solution to the problem, creating conflict. For instance, if the characters are trying to pass through a gateway, it could be guarded. Every scene should have an obvious goal.
Every scene must also have some form of conflict, which is something that interferes with the accomplishment of the goal. Stories could have many minor goals, but one major desire will dominate the story. Minor goals could include subplots such as love stories or intrigues between characters.
The Introduction will introduce the main character along with his weakness, the setting, the goal of the story, the main villain, and the inciting incident. The character should be dealing with the initial surface problem before the inciting incident occurs. One of the most important parts of the introduction is to demonstrate the character’s weakness.
Rising Action is the second part of the story, and it will be a set of scenes that get the characters moving in the direction of the story goal. In the early stages of a story, the conflict will begin to rise, creating a greater sense of urgency. A significant event should occur, and this will intensify the stakes of the story, and the hero’s desire will increase. Every writer should ask, “What’s at stake here?” in every scene.
Section II (The Middle) has three goals:
The first goal is to complicate the story with plot twists by developing the opponents, along with their moral arguments. The second goal is to show the character developing a plan to accomplish the desire line of the story. The third goal is to raise the stakes with a crisis created when the character’s plan fails.
Developing the Opponents
In the middle of the story, you develop the main opponent and the secondary opponents through a series of revelations. More intense conflict is created by having multiple opponents in conflict with each other as well as with the main character. Show what the opponents want, along with their value systems and how they come in conflict with the main character. What do they want, why do they want it and why should they have it?
In this section, show the moral arguments of the opponents and put them in conflict with the protagonist through an argument. The best kinds of opponents are not evil. Show the reasons they do what they do.
How to Write Moral Arguments
- Write a philosophical treatise.
- Put it in terms of everyday words.
- Put it in conflict, so that the protagonist & antagonist can speak passionately about it.
- Sum it up with a final line of dialogue.
Once you have a desire and a main opponent, your character will need a plan to achieve his goal. The opponent should also have a plan. The opponents are developed further through additional revelations. As the character tries to defeat the main opponent, he will usually fail. The failure of the hero’s plan will force him to improvise. This makes both the opponent and hero look more powerful.
Raise the Stakes
When the hero’s plan fails to work, he will become more and more desperate to win and will begin to commit more and more immoral acts. His allies will challenge him, but the hero will make excuses for his behavior. The hero will become obsessed with his desire.
Complications in the story make things more interesting for the characters. Often a major plot twist is introduced here which will force the main character to adapt, becoming fully committed, strengthening or clarifying his motivation. New opponents may be introduced in this section of the story, as the plot becomes more complex. Eventually, the character will reach a point of no return.
The crisis is the lowest point in the story, where everything looks hopeless. The hero will suffer an apparent defeat and the opponent will appear to have won. This is called the decisive moment and it will force the hero to make a crucial decision, leading to the climax of the story.
Section III (The End) contains these goals:
The first goal is to set up the final battle between the protagonist and main opponent. The second goal is to show the main character’s self-revelation, which usually occurs at the end of the battle. The third goal is to demonstrate how the main character has changed, leading to a new equilibrium and the end of the story.
The battle is a scene where the main character has the final confrontation with the main opponent. The hero may win or lose, live or die. This is where we learn if the protagonist will achieve his desire.
The most important parts of a story are the first scene, where the hero is introduced, along with his weakness and the self-revelation near the end of the story, where the hero’s need is fulfilled. The self-revelation is usually the final revelation of the story.
There are four kinds of self-revelation: The self-revelation resolves the weakness of the protagonist, fulfilling his need. The moral self-revelation resolves the moral weakness of the main character. The thematic self-revelation resolves the thematic question of the story. The audience self-revelation is a revelation the audience has about their own life while reading or watching the story. Several characters may experience a self-revelation during the story.
The Traveling Angel
Occasionally, the protagonist of the story does not experience any character change. Instead, one of the other characters will experience the self-revelation. This type of story is called the traveling angel story. The protagonist is the agent of change in this kind of story.
After the protagonist has experienced the self-revelation, some action should be made to demonstrate how the main character has changed. The protagonist will end up at a higher level or a lower level at the end of the story.
The final climax of the story is a scene that everything in the story has been pointing towards. It can be a surprise, but is should be a logical progression of the events in the past. Sometimes in a short story, the climax will be the first (and perhaps the only) scene.
The resolution, also called the denouement, is a final scene that shows the outcome of the events of the story. This is where the consequences of the actions taken by the protagonist are shown. This is also where the character is shown to have overcome their weakness.
The end of a story will be of two main kinds:
An open ended story is where the desire line has been completed, but not everything has been finished, leaving the audience to imagine their own ending.
A closed story is where everything is complete, leaving an obvious ending for the audience.
Designing a story involves the use of story structure. Along with the premise, the way you structure your story is the most important element. Ninety percent of screenplays and eighty percent of novels are rejected because of poor structure.
There are many structure systems, from the simple three act structure to the twelve step Hero’s Journey. These systems are interesting, but most of them aren’t very useful. Most people use the three act structure system, which was designed for theater. In practice, it’s too simplistic and it doesn’t deal much with the characters. You can’t have plot without character.
The best system is the seven step classic story structure taught by John Truby. His book, “The Anatomy of Story,” contains a more detailed approach to structure. The seven steps are:
- New Equilibrium.
Problem – The initial surface problem is something the main character faces at the start of the story. It’s typically caused by something in the character’s past. The story worthy problem is something that is ignited by the inciting incident and it forms the central conflict of the story.
Need – This is an internal lack within the character. Something the character needs to learn in order to have a better life. The need comes from the character’s essential weakness. The need forms the heart of the story.
Desire – This is what the character wants to accomplish in the story. Note that while the need is mostly unknown by the character, the desire is a definite goal. The audience should know when the desire has been accomplished. The desire line forms the spine of the story.
Opponent – The main opponent is someone that generally wants the same thing as the hero. Secondary opponents will increase the level of complexity and conflict in a story.
Plan – This is how the hero plans to accomplish his desire and defeat the opponent. The opponent will also have a plan, and as they both go after the goal, there will be a series of escalating conflicts. The protagonist’s plan will usually fail.
Battle – The final confrontation between the hero and main opponent. It will lead to a fundamental change in the hero.
Self-Revelation – This is a revelation the hero has about himself – about who he is and about how to live properly in the world. It fulfills his need.
New Equilibrium – After the final battle where the hero has either achieved or lost the goal, the hero will return to normal, except that the hero will be at a higher level or a lower level. If the self-revelation was positive, the character will end up at a higher level and his life will improve. If the self-revelation is negative, the character will end up at a lower level.
Begin to Design Your Story
Now that you have an understanding of how a story is put together, you can begin to design your story. Figure out your basic story outline using the seven steps. Give your story a title, write a one line description (a logline), and then determine the basic actions that will occur in each of the seven steps.
Begin at the end, with the self-revelation and then go back to the beginning and figure out the main character’s weakness/need. This is called, “framing” the story. Here are three examples of stories outlined with the seven steps of classic structure:
A young man saves a princess from the evil forces of the galactic Empire.
Problem: Luke is stuck on a planet as far away from the action as possible.
Need: To be a hero.
Inciting Event: Luke uncovers a message from a princess: “Help me!”
Desire: To rescue the princess.
Opponent: Grand Moff Tarkin and Darth Vader.
Plan: To learn the ways of the Force.
Battle: Fight over the Death Star.
Self-Revelation: Luke hears a voice during the battle; “Use the Force!”
New Equilibrium: After destroying the Death Star, the galaxy is safe.
HARRY POTTER & THE PHILOSOPHER’S STONE
A boy attends a school for witches and wizards.
Problem: Harry is living in a cupboard under the stairs.
Need: To prove himself.
Inciting Event: Harry receives a letter from Hogwarts School.
Desire: To learn who is after the Philosopher’s Stone.
Opponent: Voldemort, Snape, Quirrell, Malfoy.
Plan: To uncover the truth that Snape is after the stone. The plan fails, since Snape is innocent.
Battle: Harry fights Professor Quirrell and Voldemort.
Self-Revelation: Harry is protected by the love of his parents.
New Equilibrium: Hagrid gives Harry a photo album of his parents.
SHADOWS & DREAMS
A Faerie Changeling decides to rescue her “sister” – the human child she was exchanged for.
Problem: Aisling begins to see strange lights and shadows and visions in the glass.
Need: To believe in dreams.
Inciting Event: A Shadow Person holds a knife to Aisling’s throat, and her friend is abducted by a Faerie Dullahan – a headless horseman.
Desire: To learn magic and defeat Ith, the Lord of Shadows.
Second Desire: To rescue her “sister,” Erin – the human child she was exchanged for.
Opponent: Ith, the Lord of Shadows, Queen Annan of the Faeries, Morrigan (Faerie rival).
Plan: To allow Ith to steal the Dream Crystal, allowing Aisling to rescue Erin.
Battle: Fight Ith over the possession of the Dream Crystal.
Self-Revelation: Dreams really do come true.
New Equilibrium: Aisling can now manifest the life she desires, through the powers of belief.
The Story Outline Worksheet
Now that you have the seven steps, you need to make a general outline for your story. The Story Outline Worksheet (at the end of this booklet) can be used for this. It contains the title, genre, premise, central conflict, setting, a description of the main character along with her weaknesses and values, what she needs, her desire line, the opponents and their values, the central relationship of the story, minor characters, the moral arguments of the hero and opponents, the self-revelation, and a brief backstory. Note that the six sections of the story are general descriptions of the action that takes place in that section. You may want to list several locations, settings and opponents. Here’s an example of the worksheet:
Title: Shadows & Dreams Genre: Fantasy/Horror/Romance
Premise: A Faerie Changeling decides to rescue her “sister” – the human child she was exchanged for during a war over the power of dreams.
Central Conflict: Aisling fights Ith, the Lord of Shadows over possession of the Dream Crystal.
Setting: Tír na nÓg – The Land of Eternal Youth, and The Land of Shadows.
Main Character: Aisling, a Faerie Changeling Values: Excellence, Friendship.
Psychological: Aisling doesn’t believe in dreams.
Moral: Aisling is a tease, enjoying the powers of her beauty.
Need – The Heart of the Story
Character Need: To believe in dreams (psychological) & Not to manipulate men (moral).
Desire – The Spine of the Story
Story Goal: To rescue her “sister,” Erin O’Neil.
Main Opponent: Ith, Lord of Shadows Values: Freedom, Follow your dreams
2nd Opponent: Queen Annan of the Faeries Values: Repression, Be careful what you dream
3rd Opponent: Morrigan Values: Jealousy, I want to take your dreams
Characters Values – Do Dreams Come True?
Aisling Ith Dreams are a lie Follow your dreams
Queen Annan Morrigan Be careful of dreams I want your dreams
Central Relationship: Realizing your dreams.
Genevieve – human friend. Fáelán – Morrigan’s friend. Erin – human “sister.”
Eileen – Faerie guardian. Fintan – Faerie mentor. Hieronymus – A faerie cat.
Hero: Dreams are for children. Dreams are a lie. Dreams do not come true.
Opponent: Ith: Follow your dreams and you will be free. Queen Annan: Be careful what you
dream. Morrigan: I protect the kingdom and your dreams are the source of my power.
Self–Revelation: Dreams that you dare to dream come true.
Backstory: Aisling is a Faerie Changeling, abandoned in our world to protect her from the
Shadow People. The Faeries are fighting the Shadow People in a war over the power to control
the dreams of mankind.
Title: Shadows & Dreams Problem/Need Introduction – Inciting Incident
Goal: To survive Shadow Person assassins.
Opposition: The Shadow People.
Setting: A coffee house in Seattle.
Revelation: The Shadow People are real.
Title: The Dispossessed Desire Rising Action – Significant Event
Goal: To learn magic and defeat Ith.
Opposition: Changelings, Morrigan, Shadow People.
Setting: Tír na nÓg – The Land of Eternal Youth.
Revelation: Her parents were murdered by the Shadow People.
Title: The Hat Man Opponent Complications – Plot Twist
Goal: To avoid the temptations of Ith.
Opposition: Ith, the Lord of the Shadow People.
Setting: Brú na Bodb – The Palace of Bodb (Faerie castle).
Revelation: Pride causes people to fall into the Land of Shadows.
Title: The Dream Crystal Plan Crisis – Decisive Moment
Goal: To protect the Dream Crystal.
Opposition: Queen Annan, Ith.
Setting: The Garden of Thought, The Land of Shadows.
Revelation: The Queen is a liar. Indifference causes people to fall into the Land of Shadows.
Title: Shattered Dreams Battle Climax – Confrontation
Goal: Defeat Ith, rescue Erin and recover the Dream Crystal.
Setting: Scáth Caisleán – The Shadow Castle.
Revelation: Aisling is a princess.
Title: The Land of Dreams Self-Revelation Resolution – Outcome
Goal: To learn to dream again.
Opposition: Queen Annan.
Setting: Brú na Bodb – The Palace of Bodb (Faerie castle).
Self- Revelation: Dreams that you dare to dream come true.
Moral Revelation: Manipulating men for power is wrong.
Thematic Revelation: When your soul dies, you fall into the Land of Shadows.
New Equilibrium: Aisling returns Erin to her parents. Now Aisling believes in dreams.
Number & Title Your Chapters
Here are the chapter titles and the structure steps for SHADOWS AND DREAMS:
Chapter Structure Step
- Shadows & Dreams Problem
- Dancing Lights Ghost
- Cold Steel Weakness/Need
- Thin Places Talisman/Passage
- The Dispossessed Desire
- Tír na nÓg Allies
- Shadows in the Garden Opponent, Romance
- The Mirror of Eternity Fake-Ally Opponent
- The Duel 1stMajor Revelation & Decision
- The Garden of Thought Plan, Training
- The Place of Returning Opponent’s Plan & Counterattack
- The Masquerade Drive
- The Rescue Attack by Ally
- Stolen Dreams Apparent Defeat
- Without a Thought 2ndMajor Revelation & Decision
- The Salamander Audience Revelation
- Gateway to Shadow 3rdMajor Revelation & Decision
- The Haunted Forest Gate, Gauntlet, Visit to Death
- The Hat Man Battle, Ways of Life
- The Land of Dreams Self-Revelation, New Equilibrium
Create a List of Scenes
Now you add more detail to your chapters by creating a list of scenes. Every chapter should have an action, a revelation, a list of characters involved in the chapter, three scenes (beginning, middle, end) and a disaster, which is a tragedy at the end of the chapter that you can use as a hook to keep the reader interested. Scenes don’t have to end with a disaster of course. You can change everything later if you like (such as adding or removing scenes, etc.). This is just to get you started. Here’s a sample of a few detailed chapter outlines from my story, SHADOWS & DREAMS:
Chapter 1: Shadows & Dreams
Action: Aisling sees a girl vanish into thin air (she has fallen into The Land of Shadows).
Revelation: Aisling is being watched by the Shadow People.
Characters: Aisling, Genevieve, Ith, Shadow People.
- Pride & Repression– Fashion school.
- A Cold House– Aisling sees her “sister” Erin reflected in the glass.
- The Refuge– A magic mirror reveals an image of faeries exchanging their child for a human child in a crib.
Disaster: Aisling is kicked out of fashion school and she’s kicked out of her house. She doesn’t know her real parents.
Chapter 2: Dancing Lights
Action: After nearly killing another student, Aisling is kicked out of the Kung Fu temple.
Revelation: Aisling can summon Elementals, but cannot control them. She can see Faeries.
Characters: Aisling, Sifu Yuen, Students, a Fire Elemental.
- Arrogance & Discipline– Kung Fu temple/school. Aisling challenges a bully to a fight.
- The Fire Elemental– Aisling fights a duel and is possessed by an elemental.
- Cast Out– Aisling discovers a group of dancing Faerie lights.
Disaster: After Aisling is kicked out of the Kung Fu temple, a Sheerie (a Faerie appearing as a glowing ball of light) leads her in front of a speeding car.
Chapter 3: Cold Steel
Action: Aisling completely abandons her dreams.
Revelation: The Shadow People are the destroyers of dreams.
Characters: Aisling, Genevieve, Ith’s Lieutenant (Keir), Shadow People, a Sheerie, a Dullahan.
- Awaken to Shadow– A Shadow Person causes the destruction of Aisling’s portfolio.
- Holocaust of Dreams– The Shadow People destroy the dreams of several people.
- Bitter Coffee – After talking of the Shadow People, Aisling feels the cold edge of a knife pressed against her throat, and hears a whisper, “We are around you in the darkness.”
- The Dullahan– A headless horseman ride up and abducts Aisling’s best friend, Genevieve, riding away into the night.
Disaster: A headless horseman has taken away Aisling’s best friend.
How Many Chapters? How Many Scenes?
The number of chapters in your story depends on several factors. How long do your chapters tend to run? J.R.R. Tolkein tends to write longer chapters (around 10,000 words), while J.K. Rowling tends to write shorter chapters (3,000 to 6,000 words). How long do you want your novel to be? You should have a word count goal in mind, depending on what kind of story you’re writing. If your chapters tend to be around 6,000 words long, and you want your story to be around 90,000 words long, then you’re looking at 15 chapters.
Begin with three scenes per chapter and adjust as the story dictates. If you have 15 chapters, then you’ll have around 45 scenes. This will change as you write your story. Rarely will things turn out exactly as you’ve planned them. The purpose of creating an outline is to get a general sense of the story and to have a plan. Although it may seem that a strict story structure and outline keeps you from being creative, it’s just the opposite: With the story structure taken care of and an outline to refer to, you can feel free to play around more without worrying about breaking the story.
The seven structure steps are the basic steps of the story. There are several more advanced structure steps, detailed in the book, “The Anatomy of Story,” by John Truby. Discussions of these advanced techniques are beyond the scope of this booklet. Also, why reinvent the wheel? Get a copy of “The Anatomy of Story.” In any event, it’s a good idea to become familiar with the seven steps first.
Every story is different, of course, so every story will have a unique design. The genre you choose will have a dramatic effect on the structure of your story. For instance, in a mystery, you need to introduce the mystery (often a murder) in the beginning. In an action story, you may begin with a fighting scene (sometimes called an “Overture” scene).
Here’s how you might design a novel. The seven steps are in bold. The Plan is typically the largest part of the story, so there are more chapters in that section. The way to grow a story is to develop the revelations sequence.
Chapter 1 Title Problem
Chapter 2 Title Weakness/Need
Chapter 3 Title Inciting Incident
Chapter 4 Title Desire
Chapter 5 Title Allies, Enemies
Chapter 6 Title Opponent
Chapter 7 Title
Chapter 8 Title 1st Major Revelation & Decision
Chapter 9 Title Plan
Chapter 10 Title Opponent’s Plan & Counterattack
Chapter 11 Title 2nd Major Revelation & Decision
Chapter 12 Title Crisis, Apparent Defeat
Chapter 13 Title 3rd Major Revelation & Decision
Chapter 14 Title Battle, Self-Revelation
Chapter 15 Title New Equilibrium
How to Write a Scene
Finally, it’s time to start writing your story. This is done by writing scenes. Scenes are where the action of the story takes place. You will typically create a story by writing scenes and interspersing them with narrative summaries, which describe the events taking place between the actions. Be careful not to put too much narrative summary in your story, as it can kill the action.
There are different kinds of scenes. Action scenes involve fighting. Moral Argument scenes are designed to present the moral arguments of the protagonist and antagonist through a verbal debate.
Things like description and writing pretty prose will develop with practice. The important thing is to get the story structure right so that the action builds dramatically.
Every scene has a beginning, middle and end. There are five parts to a basic scene:
- Title– The scene title should evoke a sense of what it’s about.
- Goal– This is what the character wants to accomplish in the scene.
- Opposition– The opponent will be the source of conflict in the scene. It need not be the main villain. Often it’s one of the hero’s friends.
- Setting– Where the scene takes place.
- Revelation– What piece of information is discovered at the end of the scene which will drive the story forward in a new direction.
Once you’ve figured out your story design and have a list of chapters and scenes, you can start writing the story. It may take you several months of practice to get good at writing and you’ll have to develop your own unique approach. If these techniques work for you, use them. If you like to keep things looser, then that’s fine too. Just remember: Keep writing!
Main Character: Values:
Need – The Heart of the Story
Desire – The Spine of the Story
Main Opponent: Values:
2nd Opponent: Values:
3rd Opponent: Values:
Characters Values –
Self – Revelation:
Title: Problem/Need Introduction – Inciting Incident
Title: Desire Rising Action – Significant Event
Title: Opponent Complications – Plot Twist
Title: Plan Crisis – Decisive Moment
Title: Battle Climax – Confrontation
Title: Self-Revelation Resolution – Outcome