Your Story Template
by James Thayer
As writers, we are looking for a compelling story. Or, we have a story in mind, but may not know if it is complete.
Orson Scott Card said, “The difference between storytellers and non-storytellers is that we storytellers, like fishermen, are constantly dragging an ‘idea net’ along with us.” But is our idea strong and whole?
Below is a story template. It’s a checklist of ingredients most novels need. We can use it to invent a story or to check the strength of our story.
But wait. A template? Doesn’t that imply a formula? For something as original and individual as a novel? Successful novels are like buildings. A building has walls and a roof. Without them, it’s not a building. In the same way, a story that works successfully has certain ingredients. Roger Ebert calls them “the ancient story machinery groaning away below the deck.”
Won’t following a template create a novel that imitates others? Some say there are only five plots, and that all plots in history are derivative of these five: man against man, man against nature, man against himself, man against society, and man against God. Of course, don’t have a dead horse’s head in the bed of a movie producer who is being pressured by gangsters, but otherwise don’t worry about being imitative. Literary agent Donald Maass said, ”There are certainly no new plots. Not a one. There are also no settings that have not been used, and no professions that have not been given to protagonists.”
Here is the template:
Who is the protagonist?
A. What is your protagonist’s background? Fascinating or unusual is best. But see the caution against back-story below.
B. What does your protagonist want? This is critical because the main thrust of your story is about her struggle to get it. Does she want love, wealth, revenge, safety, redemption, freedom? In compelling fiction, the hero desperately wants something.
C. Does your hero have the necessary personality? Protagonists in successful novels are wildly diverse but, even so, almost all fictional heroes have these traits in common:
1) They are kind when it counts. Not always, and maybe not mostly, but when it is important, the hero will do something kind. If nothing else he will adopt a dog, a common fictional device to salvage otherwise irredeemable heroes, which is called the Adopt A Dog Technique.
2) They are brave when they need to be. The courage doesn’t need to be physical courage, such as saving someone from a burning building: it can be forgiveness or sacrifice or something else that shows mettle.
3) They are not fools. A foolish decision by the protagonist often starts the story, but readers will not tolerate a character who chronically does silly things.
4) They have the ability to grow. Almost all heroes in successful fiction have been changed by the time the story ends, and the change is for the better.
What is the story question? Novels have one big story question that is answered in the novel’s climax. The story question is usually a mirror of the hero’s desperate desire. Will she find love? Will he find safety? Will she get revenge?
Who is the villain? Most but not all novels have a principal villain. Sometimes the villain is a force of nature such as an impending storm, or an animal, or an otherworldly presence, but most often the villain is a human being. Successful villains usually have these traits:
A. They are formidable. Much of a story’s tension stems from the duel between the hero and the villain. A compelling duel is a close duel, not a walkover. To make it exciting the villain should be a match—that is, almost a match—for the hero.
B. They are understandable. Here, understandable doesn’t necessarily mean sympathetic. It means that the reader clearly learns what is driving the villain. Greed, revenge, and vainglory are common.
Who is the buddy? A buddy for the hero isn’t a requirement for a successful story but a buddy is a remarkably useful plotting device. A buddy can be a foil, can add humor to a serious novel or seriousness to a funny novel, can be a confessor, can add motivation, can be involved in subplots, can clarify the hero by being a contrast, and can have many other uses. Think of Holmes and Watson, Aubrey and Maturin, Wolfe and Goodwin.
What are the obstacles? Almost all popular fiction is about a protagonist who wants something she can’t have, and the story is about the struggle to get it.
Someone—usually the villain--is placing obstacles in her path. The story is about the hero overcoming these obstacles. What kind of obstacles? Here are only some of the obstacles Margaret Mitchell made Scarlett O’Hara deal with: Ashley’s commitment to Melanie. An unhappy marriage to Charles Hamilton and the stifling requirements of faux-grieving as a widow. Melanie’s saccharine nature. Having to nurse the wounded in a dreadful hospital. Fleeing a conflagration. Hiding from Bluecoats under a bridge. The ransacking of her home. Hunger and hard work. Petty sisters. The arrival of the rapacious Union soldier. More of her unquenchable and hopeless love for Ashley, the collapse of her business, the death of her child, one thing after another, and then Rhett’s goodbye.
The bulk of the novel will document the protagonist’s attempts to overcome obstacles. Your job as a story-teller is to invent these obstacles. Your hero won’t be happy, but the reader will be.
What is the setting? A setting is the time and place where the story occurs. Most people don’t read a novel for the setting, but the setting can add a huge amount of interest to a novel. Avoid dull settings; an office, a classroom, a front lawn, the interior of a car, the grocery store, the coffee shop. Put your characters in interesting places: a slaughterhouse, a Paris fashion runway, the coal mine, a submarine’s weapons room; somewhere the reader doesn’t go every day.
Even for novels set in the present age in a city or the suburbs, interesting settings are available. That critical conference between the protagonist and her child’s teacher? Don’t put it in the dull classroom. Put in the gym during the rehearsal for the upcoming holiday pageant, where the children are dressed as Mr. Winter and the Icicle Fairy, and are running around doing funny things. The kids and costumes and pranks and noise in the background during the critical conversation will add pop to the scene.
Does the story always move forward? Pace is the rate at which the story unfolds. Some novels have a slow pace and others a faster pace, but successful stories always move forward. One thing after another relentlessly occurs. Watch out for these pace-killers:
1. Back-story. If your novel begins on February 1, 2010, anything that occurred before that date is back-story. Back-story stops forward momentum, and is almost always more interesting to the writer than to the reader. The reader doesn’t need to see—and will be bored by—too much of your characters’ histories. New writers have a strong urge to overdue back-story. Fight it.
2. Interior monologue. Readers will usually understand from the circumstances what the character is thinking without long paragraphs of thinking. A character’s thoughts are the least interesting aspect of a story. Particularly avoid navel gazing: the character thinking about how she feels about things.
3. Scenes that begin too early and end too late in the chronology. Most often, begin a scene at the heart of the action, not when the character is preparing for the action or traveling to the action. And after the heart of the scene, there’s usually little need for a wind down; no need to see him driving back home or having a scotch to calm himself.
Does the story suffer from too much reality? Sol Stein said a reader is “primarily seeking an experience different from and greater than his or her everyday experience in life.” Erica Jong said a novel “must make my so-called real world seem flimsy.” And here is Kurt Vonnegut: “I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading.’’
A novel is an amplification of real life. It is more exciting, more fun, more romantic, more glamorous, and more dangerous. It is wittier, braver, courser, faster and bigger. A novel has more smell, more taste, and more sound. Friendships are closer, and enemies are crueler. Children are more mature, and old people more profound. Dogs don’t just lie around, and cats have a purpose. Everything is more.
We all live real lives, and so we don’t want to read about real lives as our entertainment. Ramp up the story.
Does the story have a rewarding ending? A strong conclusion:
1. Doesn’t occur too early. After the novel’s climax, the walkaway should be short, just a few pages.
2. Answers the main story question. Yes, he does find love. Yes, she does find safety. Orson Scott Card said a good ending will “resolve the major source of structural tension.”
3. Ties up loose ends. Tom Clancy said that fiction must make more sense than real life. If a character is coughing raggedly in chapter two, an explanation for the coughing needs to be offered by the end of the story, or the reader will close the book at the end, and say, “Hey, what about the guy with all the coughing?”
4. Leaves the reader feeling better. Nobody reads a novel as punishment. Walt Disney said, “I’m a happy ending guy,” which is what almost all readers want in a story. The ending can be poignant or wistful or bittersweet, but readers expect to feel satisfied—even happy—at the end of a novel.
So there’s our template. Answer these questions in a strong way, and it’s likely we have a strong plot.
James Thayer’s thirteenth novel, The Boxer and the Poet; Something of a Romance, was published by Black Lyon Publishing in March 2008. He teaches novel writing at the University of Washington Extension School, and he runs a freelance editing service. (www.thayerediting.com)