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.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Your Story Engine

Writers can be meticulous planners, SOTPers/pantsters (seat of the pants writers), or somewhere in between. No matter where you fall on the spectrum, articulating your story engine before going ahead will clarify whether you even have a story, and if so, how you might go about writing it.

The story engine is comprised of three components:



The Story Goal is the task that your protagonist wants to accomplish during the course of your story. This task needs to be something unequivocal, something that clearly is successful, or not, by the end of the story.

Make sure that your story goal is something noble: for example, a protagonist who wants to achieve a powerful position so that he can impose his strange philosophy on many people will not be a sympathetic character, and his goal will not be something your reader will root for. On the other hand, if your protagonist is trying to, say, obtain money to help a little girl with cancer, your audience will be sympathetic. It is the protagonist's motive in his story goal that matters.

Your story goal should be able to be broken down into smaller goals. For example, if your character's story goal is to win a big singing contest, she'll need to be struggling in obscurity before learning of the contest, struggle for the entrance money, have classroom run-ins with nasy competitors who may ruin her reputation or costume, convince an important ally to work with her, and so forth before the big night and the climax of the competition. These smaller goals push your story forward since achieving each small goal brings you one step closer to the big goal.


The stakes determine why this story goal is so important to your protagonist. If it isn’t important, he won’t be motivated to achieve it. What horrible things might happen if the story goal isn’t achieved? For example, in our singer's example from the previous paragraph, if the girl doesn't win she won't qualify for the college scholarship that will let her be the first one in her family to go to university... and she thus won't be able to fulfill her dream of becoming a doctor and helping the people in her poor neighborhood. Make your stakes important enough, and noble enough, that they are worth great protagonist efforts in your story.


If your protagonist can simply achieve the story goal, there is no story. All stories need multiple obstacles, both internal and external, holding the protagonist back from getting what he wants. An important rule for writing is to never make it easy on your hero. Internal obstacles are within the protagonist; things like the protagonist dealing with fear, lack of knowledge, or hiding a deadly secret. External obstacles are more visible; things like the protagonist outsmarting an enemy, crossing difficult terrain, or needing to find an object. Before you start writing each chapter, list a few internal and external obstacles that your POV character will have to deal with. These obstacles will prevent writer's block as you go through the scene.


Take a few minutes now to work on your goal, stakes, and obstacles. Any events in your story should relate to your story engine to make sure the narrative pushes forward. Determine several different levels of stakes so that the story goal becomes increasingly important. Come up with imaginative and multiple obstacles so that the story goal becomes increasingly in doubt. This planning at the beginning will pay off dividends soon.

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