I’ve been writing for almost 20 years and I didn’t finish my first novel until last November. This isn’t because I spent two decades on one novel (though I’m sure it would’ve turned out great). Finishing a novel took 20 years because it took me that long to understand story structure.
As writers, we get sparks for scenes and stories every day. The problem is a spark will always be a spark until you build a story structure around it. How many times have you come up with an incredible story idea and 30 pages later found yourself typing "...".
When was the last time you saw a TV show or movie so riddled with plot holes and character gaps that you actually had to turn it off? These things happen because a story without structure is not a good story.
Story structures are the bumper lanes in the bowling alley that is writing (not the smoothest metaphor, I know, but let's go along with it and just pretend it's really poetic because the image works).
Writing is a bowling ball. Without your story structure/bumper lanes, you're going to get several gutter balls. With your story structure, you set yourself up for a strike.
So if you’re ready to get a "strike!" (okay, I'm done now) and finally finish your novel or fix the problems in your existing novel, check out the steps below.
1) Identify Your Character's Goal
(You’ll notice a lot of these tips stem from having a clear idea of who your protagonist is. If you're not already there, check out my tips on creating kick-ass characters! Step 1 is an example of what you’ll find)
Think of your favorite story. What's it about? A quest for love? For justice? Characters make up the heart of every story, but goals make up the heart of every character.
A character with a goal is automatically a story about someone struggling to reach that goal and fighting opponents who try and keep them from that goal. In The Maze Runner Thomas wants to discover the truth. In The Hunger Games Katniss wants to save her sister.
Whoever your character is, you must decide what they are striving to achieve. Once you do, you will see your story fall into place. So think long and hard about your character’s goal. After that's set, you will be one crucial step closer to building your character and your story.
2) Identify Your Character's Main Conflict
Once you've picked your character's goal, finding their main conflict is easy because it is the direct opposite of their goal. Let's go back to our Hunger Games example:
- Katniss's Goal: Save Prim.
- Katniss's Conflict: Consistent threats to Prim's life.
This may seem like the obvious, but it is a crucial step in building the structure your story needs. Often times we think having a great protagonist and great antagonist will get us to the end, but pitting two people against each other is a WWE Fight, not a story.
A story is a character's attempt at overcoming conflict to reach a specific goal.
Once you know your main conflict, you're already a million steps closer to building an organic story. Let's look at another example. Take The Walkstarring Joseph Gordon Levitt. In this movie, JGL plays a French high-wire artist named Philippe Petit.
- Philippe Petit's Goal: Cross the The Twin Towers on a high-wire.
- Philippe Petit's Conflict: Crossing The Twin Towers on a high-wire.
Is this going to be a great movie? Yeah. Here's why:
- JGL's face is really nice to look at and he has a French accent in this movie
- The premise of the story already has great story structure because desire and conflict butt heads from the very beginning.
If you can identify your character's main conflict, creating the obstacles that stem from that conflict is that much easier. Instead of scratching your head and thinking "what should happen now?" you always have a guiding force.
Ask yourself: What's in line with the main conflict?
Just watch the trailer for The Walk. The first :45 seconds give us our main character, his goal, and his conflict. The next 1:30 seconds is the promise of all the obstacles he will face on the path to this goal: engineering difficulties, run-ins with the law, injuries, fear, and death!!! (can you tell I'm excited about the movie?)
So go for it! Identify your conflict and watch the guidelines for your entire story fall into place.
3) Identify Your Character's Endpoint
Once you have your goal and your conflict, your climax is easy because it is the moment where you hero accomplishes his/her goal or fails to accomplish this goal.
With all of these parts already identified, all that is left to figure out is who and where your character is going to be at the end of the story. In this, you have every possibility in the world. Your character can leave your readers as a victor and accidental revolutionary like Katniss in The Hunger Games, or your character can jump out of the frying pan and into the fire like Thomas in The Maze Runner.
Whatever you decide, always keep it at the forefront of your mind. You can avoid plot holes and character gaps when you have a clear idea of where your character starts and where they end.
With story structure, you'll figure out the most organic way to write your novel and discover new story elements that you never would've thought of before. So go make your bumper lanes! Even in the worst of your writer's block , you'll always know how to keep pushing forward and help your idea become a reality.