For my next three blogs I’m hi-jacking The 5 Essential Story Ingredients written by Steven James. It’s so well written I saved it – and because it’s great information - I want to share it with you. J Rita
Imagine that I’m telling you about my day and I say, “I woke up. I ate breakfast. I left for work.”
Is that a story? After all, it has a protagonist who makes choices that lead to a natural progression of events, it contains three acts and it has a beginning, a middle and an end—and that’s what makes something a story, right?
Well, actually, no. It’s not.
My description of what I did this morning—while it may meet those commonly accepted criteria—contains no crisis, no struggle, no discovery, no transformation in the life of the main character. It’s a report, but it’s not a story.
Over the years as I’ve taught at writing conferences around the world, you should see some of the looks I’ve gotten when I tell people to stop thinking of a story in terms of its structure. And it’s easy to understand why. Spend enough time with writers or English teachers and you’ll hear the dictum that a story is something that has a beginning, middle and end. I know that the people who share this definition mean well, but it’s really not a very helpful one for storytellers. After all, a description of a pickle has a beginning, a middle, and an end, but it’s not a story. The sentence, “Preheat the oven to 450 degrees,” has those basic elements, but it’s not a story either.
So then, what is a story?
Centuries ago, Aristotle noted in his book Poetics that while a story does have a beginning, a middle and an ending, the beginning is not simply the first event in a series of three, but rather the emotionally engaging originating event. The middle is the natural and causally related consequence, and the end is the inevitable conclusive event.
In other words, stories have an origination, an escalation of conflict, and a resolution.
Of course, stories also need a vulnerable character, a setting that’s integral to the narrative, meaningful choices that determine the outcome of the story, and reader empathy. But at its most basic level, a story is a transformation unveiled—either the transformation of a situation or, most commonly, the transformation of a character.
Simply put, you do not have a story until something goes wrong.
At its heart, a story is about a person dealing with tension, and tension is created by unfulfilled desire. Without forces of antagonism, without setbacks, without a crisis event that initiates the action, you have no story. The secret, then, to writing a story that draws readers in and keeps them turning pages is not to make more and more things happen to a character, and especially not to follow some preordained plot formula or novel-writing template. Instead, the key to writing better stories is to focus on creating more and more tension as your story unfolds.
Understanding the fundamentals at the heart of all good stories will help you tell your own stories better—and sell more of them, too. Imagine you’re baking a cake. You mix together certain ingredients in a specific order and end up with a product that is uniquely different than any individual ingredient. In the process of mixing and then baking the cake, these ingredients are transformed into something delicious.
That’s what you’re trying to do when you back up a story.
So let’s look at five essential story ingredients, and then review how to mix them together to make your story so good readers will ask for seconds.
Ingredient #1: Orientation - The beginning of a story must grab the reader’s attention, orient her to the setting, mood and tone of the story, and introduce her to a protagonist she will care about, even worry about, and emotionally invest time and attention into. If readers don’t care about your protagonist, they won’t care about your story, either.
So, what’s the best way to introduce this all-important character? In essence, you want to set reader expectations and reveal a portrait of the main character by giving readers a glimpse of her normal life. If your protagonist is a detective, we want to see him at a crime scene. If you’re writing romance, we want to see normal life for the young woman who’s searching for love. Whatever portrait you draw of your character’s life, keep in mind that it will also serve as a promise to your readers of the transformation that this character will undergo as the story progresses.
For example, if you introduce us to your main character, Frank, the happily married man next door, readers instinctively know that Frank’s idyllic life is about to be turned upside down—most likely by the death of either his spouse or his marriage. Something will soon rock the boat and he will be altered forever. Because when we read about harmony at the start of a story, it’s a promise that discord is about to come. Readers expect this.
Please note that normal life doesn’t mean pain-free life. The story might begin while your protagonist is depressed, hopeless, grieving or trapped in a sinking submarine. Such circumstances could be what’s typical for your character at this moment. When that happens, it’s usually another crisis (whether internal or external) that will serve to kick-start the story. Which brings us to the second ingredient.