I was going through old emails from waaay back when (yep, I’m an unapologetic email hoarder). I was looking for story ideas we used to float by each other to see what we thought and how they might be developed into a story.
We had tons of ideas, but we never developed them into full-fledged, novel length stories. You know the main reason we didn’t? Whether we realized it or not, we didn’t know how to do it, nor what the craft of writing a story is really about.
With the help of my mentor, let’s call her Emily, I now understand that if you don’t have at least a rudimentary comprehension of story craft and structure, those story ideas will never get off the ground.
‘When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”
With Emily’s help, I put my focus into to discovering what the craft of writing is truly is about. In addition to what I learned from her, Emily suggested I read a book written by James Scott Bell titled Super Structure: The Key to Unleashing the Power of Story. She said it would explain craft it in a way I’d understand.
The book is packed with concise, easy to understand information in just 118 pages. It’s a quick read even for a slow, dyslexic reader like me.
It breaks story structure down into comprehensive, bite-sized chapters. He provides examples for each chapter subject, using well-known novels and movies to demonstrate what he’s talking about. After reading each section you get that, “Okay, I see exactly what he means…” moment.
BTW: You can learn everything he teaches in the book, right on his blog https://killzoneblog.com/ . It’s free, but it takes some digging. For me it was worth the price of a Starbucks coffee to have it on hand at all times.
As I read this book, the light switches in my head flicked on, illuminating the knowledge that had been lurking in the darkness. Eventually I realized I’ve already read many great books about story structure, but for some reason they never made my synapses fire up like this one did.
Now that “I get it,” I’ve been going back to the following fantastic books about story structure to deepen my knowledge and make it part of the construct in my brain.
- Story Engineering, by Larry Brooks. This is a great book about story structure. It’s pretty involved, so read it in small bites. It’s pretty much a master class about writing a novel. I guess I should have started with a novice level book before diving into this one.
- Story: Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting, by Robert McKee. I know, you must be thinking, “A book about screenwriting?” Telling a great story is the key, and this book covers it like no other. It is touted as one of the most highly acknowledged books on story writing in the entire writer’s community. It is a big book, so take your time with it and really absorb what is being taught.
- On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, by Stephen King. This one we both know well, and like a lot. The first half of the book you get a mini autobiographical account of what Steve King went through to become the legendary novelist he is today. Then, in the last half of the book, we’re treated to the insights of telling a great story. I never need an excuse to re-visit this book. I have it on audio and will start listening to it again on my commutes.
I know there’s a ton of good writing books out there, but these are among the best of them, and ones I refer to most often. Finally having a good grasp of what story craft really is, I know I’m going to get so much more out of these books now.
So what does the craft of writing fiction involve? The following list is by no means comprehensive:
- Understanding the 3 act structure
- Your writing voice
- Finding Ideas
- Choosing a genre
- Choosing a POV – Point of View
- Concept, Premise and Theme
- Outlining – bringing structure to the story
- Story Beats
- Creating unforgettable characters
- Knowing what the main character wants – what’s at stake
- Dialogue – and how to make it real and stay on point
- Inciting incident – engaging and hooking the reader from the first pages
- Conflict, conflict and more conflict – the key to what makes the story
- Plot Points, Pinch Points, and Milestones
- Setting and tone
- Foreshadowing, story elements and supporting characters
- The all-important Midpoint – or Mirror Moment
- Building interest or suspense through the middle
- The climax and transformation
As you can see there’s a lot to learn. With time we can master some these skills. Think about our current professions. The average person can’t come in off the street and do what we do. We’ve built our skills through years of experience. Being able to write great stories is no different.
I’m creating a story structure matrix in Excel (hey I’m an analyst, what did you expect?), to make the outlining process easier for me. Yes, I’m plotter/outliner now – I’ll cover that in another post.
Hey Big W,
I recall how we used to come up with those ideas. Do you remember the satire we tried co-authoring, ‘The Corn Conspiracy’? I think I still have it in a file folder on some dusty old hard drive somewhere.
And whaddya mean you outline? Since when? What about all the talks we had about developing a story organically?