On this blog every Tuesday and Friday I write about story techniques, structure, and/or publishing. Comments and questions are welcome. I also have a personal blog, Amy Deardon, on which I write about a variety of topics purely as they catch my fancy.

I've written one novel, A Lever Long Enough, that I'm honored to say has won two awards. In my life BC (before children) I was a scientist who did bench research.

My book, The Story Template: Conquer Writer's Block Using the Universal Structure of Story, is now available in both hard-copy and e-book formats. I also coach would-be novelists and screenwriters to develop their story. YOU CAN CONTACT ME at amydeardon at yahoo dot com.

Friday, March 30, 2012

your Skeletal Story Outline

Now you need to start a preliminary structure of your story. First, identify where your protagonist is starting, and where he will finish.

A very rough story structure can be described using the story goal and five general points of the story flow:

1. Beginning
2. Story Goal
3. Door
4. Journey
5. Slide
6. Resolution

Beginning -- describes "ordinary world" plus a change;

Story Goal -- overall goal that the protagonist wants to achieve by the end of the story

Door -- point where the protagonist embarks on a "journey" to achieve the story goal;

Journey -- long middle section of the story;

Slide -- point where the action changes again, and the story moves onto a course of resolution;

Resolution -- the end of the story


The Lord of the Rings (The Fellowship)
Beginning: Frodo lives in the Shire when he is given the One Ring by his Uncle Bilbo. Frodo wants to hide it.

Story Goal: Gandalf says the Ring must be destroyed in the fires of Mount Doom.

Door: Frodo leaves the Shire with Sam.

Journey: Frodo and Sam meet friends and form the Fellowship. They have many adventures and trials traveling toward Mount Doom.

Slide: Orcs fall upon the group, and Frodo and Sam are separated from the others.

Resolution: The story is continued in the next two books, but in this one Frodo and Sam continue alone. Frodo realizes that only he is able to bear the Ring long enough to destroy it.


The Wizard of Oz
Beginning: Dorothy is a farm girl in Kansas when her dog Toto is taken from her by Miss Gulch.

Bridging Story Goal: She decides to get Toto back.

Door: A tornado lifts Dorothy and Toto into the Land of Oz.

Story Goal: Dorothy wants to convince the Wizard of Oz in the Emerald City to get her home.

Journey: Dorothy meets friends, and they have many adventures and trials traveling towards the Emerald City.

Slide: Dorothy kills the witch so she can bring the witch's broomstick to the wizard, then he will help her go home.

Resolution: Dorothy learns the wizard is a fraud but she uses the ruby slippers she's already wearing to get home.


Now write the stages for your own story.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Protagonist and Simple Story

Who is your main character? Although there are exceptions, stories in general have one protagonist. Fairly frequently, especially in more plot-driven stories, there may also be what I call a "secondary protagonist" who is closely allied with the protagonist and works as a team with him or her. Often the secondary protagonist is also a love interest, but not always. Additionally, you may have protagonists of subplots. I discussed subplots HERE.

For your story, choose only one protagonist and, if you wish, one secondary protagonist.

Now, you need to lay out a simple outline of your story. A story can be divided into three parts, cleverly:

1. Beginning
2. Middle
3. End

The beginning sets up the story, showing the protagonist in his "ordinary world" and how and why he makes the decision to pursue the story goal.

The middle, the longest section, consists of a series of actions and reactions that show the progress and problems of the progatonist pursuing the story goal.

The end describes how the story is resolved.

Identify in a few sentences each what happens to your protagonist in the beginning, middle, and end of your story.

OK, on Friday we'll expand the story outline. Happy writing!

Friday, March 23, 2012

Story Stakes

For your story, you also need to describe WHY this goal is so important to the protagonist. If it isn't important, he could just go home and eat dinner instead of knock his socks off to achieve.

Romeo and Juliet: If Romeo and Juliet fail, Juliet will be forced to marry against her will, and she and Romeo will probably never see each other again.


The Wizard of Oz: If Dorothy fails, she will be stuck forever in the strange landscape of Oz, never again seeing her family.


The Hunt for Red October: If Ramius fails, he and his officers will be executed for treason.


The Fellowship of the Ring: If Frodo fails, the entire Middle Earth will fall into chaos and horror under the dominion of Sauron.

In your story, why is the story goal so important to your protagonist? What horrible consequences will occur if your protagonist fails in his quest?

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Story Question

Once you have the heart, it suggests the overall shape of the story. The attainment of a goal needs to be something tangible, something that clearly indicates success or failure in the story.

Romeo and Juliet: Romeo and Juliet want to run away, be married, and live peacefully together in love. Failure occurs if they are not able to escape.
The story question is: Will Romeo and Juliet be able to escape?


The Wizard of Oz: Dorothy longs to return home. Failure occurs if she is unable to return home.
The story question is: Will Dorothy be able to return home?


The Hunt for Red October: Ramius wishes to escape the repressive Soviet Union and live in the United States. Failure occurs if he is caught escaping.
The story question is: Will Ramius be able to escape to freedom?


The Fellowship of the Ring: Frodo must destroy the One Ring. Failure occurs if the ring is not destroyed.
The story question is: Will Frodo be able to destroy the One Ring?


What does your protagonist ultimately want? Make it very specific, so that its attainment or lack thereof clearly indicates success or failure. Write down your story question.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Heart of the Story

To write a gripping, moving story, you need to articulate ONE universal principle that is explored within the story. This is the element that causes the reader to return again and again to the story; the element that resonates deep within the reader. Yes, you can write a story without a universal principle, but if you do the story will disappear as soon as the reader puts it down. A clever Agatha Christie mystery is fun to read, but it doesn't resonate.

What is the message you want to get across that will resonate with the reader?

First, name the primary emotion or driving force of your story. Some examples are love, hate, forgiveness, anger, generosity, greed, humility, arrogance, friendship, misanthropy, courage, fear, truth, doubt, etc.

For example, let's say your story is about love. What sort of love? Love of a parent or child? Love for animals? Love that fails, or love that stands through everything?

Let's say your story is about GREAT love between lovers. How will you demonstrate this great love in your story? What is the most potent obstacle to lovers, or indeed to anyone? How about DEATH. In your story love will win because it is GREAT love, so the heart of your story becomes:


You've just described Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.


Let's try another one. Suppose your story is about longing. What is the protagonist longing for? How about something outside him- or herself. Now, how can this longing be shown? Let's contrast it with something within the protagonist. Maybe the protagonist has the longed-for object all along. The heart of your story then becomes:


Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz


How about courage? First, we need to make it specific. Courage to do what? How about to fight against opression. Now, the opposite of oppression is freedom, so the heart of your story becomes:


Tom Clancy's The Hunt for Red October


One more because this is so fun. Let's take attainment of power. First, define what kind of power. How about ABSOLUTE power? What does this lead to?

A great deal of human wisdom has already been expended to affirm that grasping for absolute power corrupts and destroys. However, we don't want a downer story, so let's think how this truth can be incorporated. If attempting to grasp power leads to destruction, then being able to relinquish the power should lead to preservation.

The heart of our story then becomes:


JRR Tolkien's The Fellowship of the Ring


Now it's your turn to come up with the heart of your story. Here are the steps:

1. Identify the primary emotion or principle driving the story.

2. Refine this emotion so it's specific.

3. Determine what that emotion's opposite might be.

4. Imagine what the outcome will be when these two forces go head to head.

5. Write out the heart of your story in a single sentence.

Friday, March 9, 2012

The Logline

This will start a short series on finding the core of your story (story goal, stakes, obstacles). Today I'm focusing on the LOGLINE. My friends, you will thank me for this one -- if you ever let it slip that you're writing a book or screenplay, everyone and his brother will immediately ask you, "What is it about?" This logline prevents you from looking stupid as you explain the gist of your story in one sparkling sentence.

A logline is one sentence of about 15 to 20 words that succinctly describes your story. Here are some examples:

The Wizard of Oz: A farm girl is transported to a magical land and must find her way home (15 words).

The Fellowship of the Ring: A hobbit must destroy a magical ring of power before it destroys his world (14 words).

Romeo and Juliet: Two teenagers from warring families fall in love and must overcome family obstacles of hate to stay together (18 words).

The Count of Monte Cristo: A wrongfully imprisoned young man gains freedom and a fortune that he uses to wreak an elaborate revenge (18 words).


The logline strips your story to its bare minimum. You'll notice that character names aren't used, yet the premise is specifically described. The logline should contain irony if possible, and cause the listener to become intrigued.

There are many ways to write this logline. If you're having trouble, this formula produces good results:

An (optional adjective) subject, in this situation, acts to do this.

Writing a good logline is tougher than it looks. Make sure you continue to rewrite this as you work on other aspects of your story.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Core of the Story

Like dog breeds, stories come in such a wide variety that it doesn't seem that it can be simple. One of my favorite descriptions of a story comes from How to Tell a Story: The Secrets of Writing Captivating Tales, by Peter Rubie and Gary Provost. Here it is (page 61):

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.

I love this! Often while coaching writers, I come across someone who wants to tell a PREMISE and not a STORY. The premise can be described as a really cool story world/character/plot twist, but there is no narrative or throughline. A story, on the other hand, has the following characteristics:


OBSTACLES to the goal including preferably a main antagonist

STAKES or bad things that will happen if the story goal is not achieved

The Story Goal must be something that is pursued throughout the story, and answered clearly at the end with a yes or no answer.

Usually there is also a HIDDEN NEED in which the protagonist learns an important emotional lesson that will help him proceed in life after the story is over.


If you're familiar with the Story Template, you'll notice that the STORY is one of the four story pillars that build a narrative. The other three are Character, Story World, and Moral. All four of the plot pillars are important, but not having the story is the quickest way to flop your idea.

The good news is that there are specific developmental stages in a story that are *always* present, and developing a story can be a step-by-step process. Over the next few entries I'll go over questions and exercises to help you develop a story throughline that ties your boffo premise ideas together.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Bubbles in Your Story

When describing story structure, I didn’t find the structural element of a Bubble explicitly described in the literature, just a few peripheral references. I coined the term “Bubble” because I found the element so useful in my own analyses, and I liked the imagery of the name. Furthermore with such an unusual name I could define it exactly as I wanted to without danger of its being confused for something else :-)

What is a Bubble? I define it as the transitional element bridging an overall idea of how the story will flow with the individual scenes that will demonstrate this story. The Bubbles explain the main plot developments, or story ideas, that occur within the story.

For example, say that your main character has, as a big goal, to analyze a set of plans in act two so that he can use them to conquer the antagonist’s scheme. Getting the plans, as a goal, can be broken down into several smaller tasks:

*create a plan to break into Mr. X’s office
*implement the first part of infiltration into the office
*once alone in the office, overcome the defense mechanisms to acquire the plans
*escape from the office
*realize the plans are not complete so that more information is necessary

And so forth.

Each of these sub-goals is what I call a Bubble. Each Bubble may be completed in as few as one scene or as many as about six, although they usually don’t exceed three scenes.

I found during my analyses that each story took at least seven, up to ten, Bubbles in each quarter for a total Bubble count of 28 to 40. This count is critical. For example, in my own first novel A LEVER LONG ENOUGH, which I wrote before I had studied structure, a few people mentioned to me that the ending seemed abrupt. I couldn’t figure out why; after all, the last quarter took an appropriate amount of the word count, and it did all that an ending should do structurally.

Once I recognized Bubbles, though, I had my answer. The number of Bubbles in the other three quarters of Lever was appropriate, but my last quarter of the book only had FIVE Bubbles. Folks, Bubble count makes a difference.

The easiest way to identify a Bubble, beyond summarizing the theme of the grouping, is to study the physical location. WHEN THE LOCATION CHANGES, THE BUBBLE CHANGES. For example, in the previous example (a Mission Impossible type of story), (1) in a safe house our team might create a plan to break into Mr. X’s office. (2) Infiltration might occur in the lobby of an office building. (3) Another Bubble occurs right outside the actual office so that they can enter. (4) Inside the office our intrepid team overcomes booby traps. (Three separate problems is a good number for this). (5) Our team then must escape by jumping out the window and safely making a getaway while being chased. And so forth.

These Bubbles in this example are melodramatic and exaggerated, but accurately convey that something must always be HAPPENING in the real world. Yes, even if you’re writing a literary-type story. The Bubble count makes sure that you have enough “stuff” going on in the external story so that it doesn’t degrade into a boring thing.