Start At The End
Have you ever read a story with an intriguing plot, compelling characters and great action, but when it came down to the end of the story, the author dropped the ball? Rather than being unsatisfying, it was irritating. So annoying that you ended up hating the story?
This happens all the time in movies, where it seems like they had a great idea at first, but then messed up the story so badly that it killed the entire tale. This is all because the writer failed to do one of the most important things with the story: Start at the end.
Know Where You Are Going
When thinking about how to begin a story, most writers don’t think to start at the end. But if you want to take a trip, if you want to build a bridge, if you want to paint a masterpiece, if you want to write a symphony, or if you want to cook a good meal, you need to start with the ending. You must know where you are going. You must know what you are making. You must know what you want. Do you have a strong picture in your mind of what you’re story is about? Start at the end of the story to know what its about.
But I don’t write that way. . .
Some writers can’t write like this. They’re the kind of person that just likes to sit down and start typing, letting their story take them where it wants to go. This is actually a great way to unearth the diamonds of great stories from the subconscious mind. So if you’re like this, just keep in mind that you may need to fix the ending in a re-write. After you finish a story written this way, go back to the beginning and see if you can find a hint of the ending there.
How do you create a satisfying ending?
Defeating the bad guy or accomplishing the goal isn’t the only thing that’s important. You need to make it emotionally satisfying as well. To do this, you’ll need to set up a character arc in your story. The way you set up character change is by designing your characters so that they have a main character flaw which is demonstrated throughout the story.
As the story progresses, the character will be confronted with emotional tension related to their weakness, and this will draw out their need. The character’s need will determine what will change after the climax of the story.
So, create a character flaw in the form of a weakness, set up the opponent so that the opponent draws out that flaw and then have it revealed to the character near the end of the story. Character change is what your audience is looking for in a story.
The end of the story is made possible by what happens in the beginning. You need to address two things: The hero’s desire, which forms the spine of the story, and the hero’s need, which forms the heart of the story. To make sure that your readers will always love your stories, ask yourself these questions:
1. What is your story about? What is the purpose of your story?
2. What is the main character’s goal? The desire forms the spine of the story.
3. How does the opponent come in conflict with the hero’s goal?
It is better to think of it as the hero and opponent competing for the same goal, rather than the opponent interfering with the character’s goal.
4. Will the hero or the opponent win? Not all heroes succeed in their quest. The opponent sometimes wins.
5. What is the hero’s main character flaw? The weakness will form the heart of the story.
6. How can you demonstrate this weakness in the beginning of the story? Show how the character flaw is ruining the hero’s life.
7. How does the opponent come in conflict with the hero’s character flaw? For instance, if the hero is ambitious, the opponent might appeal to the character’s pride.
8. How will the hero overcome his character flaw and realize his need? The weakness is gradually revealed over the course of the story, and it becomes obvious to the hero near the end.
This is called the self-revelation.
What to do now
Sit down and write out the answers to the above questions. Once you have an idea of the spine and the heart of your story, you’re ready to begin. These techniques work. When you know how your story will end, you’ll be able to create a better ending that will keep your audience happy.
– Mark O’Bannon
The Blank Page
Ever writer is familiar with it: An ocean of whiteness staring back at them – the blank page. Writer’s block.
Just where do you begin when you want to tell a story?
Every writer seems to have their own unique method, developed over countless hours in front of a computer (or a typewriter for those old enough to remember what they are). If you don’t know where to begin your story, you could waste hours of time, while your deadline creeps forward.
Many writers are terrified of the blank page, as if it were some kind of horrible literary monster. Writers block can be especially painful when your mind is as empty as the page where the story is supposed to appear.
Fortunately, there is an answer.
Where To Begin Your Story
One way to approach a new project is to look at the different elements involved with writing: Premise, plot, character, setting, theme, genre, dialogue. Use one of these as the starting point for your story.
Premise – Probably the most common way to begin a story is with the idea. Many times an idea will simply pop into the mind, and when it does, you need to write it down before it fades away. Ideas are everywhere, just waiting to be picked up by someone that notices them.
One of the best ways to come up with an idea is to ask lots of questions. One of the best questions to ask is, “What if . . . ?” What if an alien spaceship landed in your backyard? What if the Iranians detonated a nuclear bomb over the United States? What if a woman discovers that her one true love is a murderer?
Plot – You might have an interesting idea for how a story unfolds. A good hook, such as the story opening onto the scene of a man dying from a gunshot wound, could be the genesis of an entire story. Other plot ideas could get your imagination going too. Do you have a great action scene in your mind? Can you imagine a great source of conflict for a story? There are as many plot ideas as there are stories.
Character – Quite often a writer will have a fascinating character in mind. Coming up with an interesting character is one of the best ways to begin a story. Remember to make your characters interesting by giving them a weakness, which is a character flaw that causes trouble in their life.
Setting – Unique places can also be great inspiration for a story. Have you ever been to a desert island? A hidden monastery? An old garden? What kinds of people visit these places? Another way to look at setting is to choose a time period. Victorian England, ancient Egypt during the wars against the Hittites, a haunted house, or a place in the future could all be great places to hold a story.
Theme – The idea for your story could also come from the theme, which can best be expressed as the writer’s view of the proper way to live in the world. A good way to think about thematic writing is to ask, “How will this story change my life?” When you approach a story from a thematic point of view, it may develop into some of your best writing. What makes you angry? What are you afraid of? What do you love more than anything else? Whatever gets your blood boiling, whatever makes you sad, whatever fills your heart with emotion can be the seed of a fantastic idea.
Genre – These are different story forms which have become so popular that they are all placed in their own unique category. Some genres are: Romance, Mystery, Science Fiction, Fantasy, Thriller, Western, Horror, Action, Crime, and Comedy. Many writers begin with the genre they want to write in, but sometimes it can be interesting to begin with one genre, and then add another kind of genre and see where it takes you. For instance, if you want to write a fantasy tale, try adding a bit of romance, or a bit of mystery and see what happens.
Dialogue – Occasionally, a line of dialogue will stick in your mind, and it could even lead to an entire story. Be careful not to use a line from a popular movie, book or TV show. One technique is to search through quotations from famous people for an interesting saying, and then developing it into a story.
Action Steps When Facing A Blank Page
Now that you have an idea of where different story ideas come from, here’s what to do when you are facing a blank page:
1. Feed your muse. Read a book. Watch a movie. Read poetry every day. If you want your muse to be happy, you need to feed it with a steady dose of stories, music and poetry. I learned this technique from Ray Bradbury and it works like a charm!
2. Pick an approach (premise, plot, character, setting, or theme).
3. Ask questions to get ideas. Here are some useful things to ask:
Premise – What if?
Plot – What happens? What is revealed?
Character – Who is the story about?
Setting – Where does the story take place? What time period is it?
Theme – What do you hate? What do you love? What are you afraid of?
Genre – What genre do you love?
Dialogue – Listen to people. What are they talking about? Look at quotes from famous people and write them down. Listen to music. What is the song about?
4. Write down the answers. You may want to use more than one approach.
5. Now, write down whatever comes into your mind. Take a look at your list and see if you get any ideas. Can you combine some of them?
6. Choose a genre. After coming up with an idea for your story, choosing a genre is the most important choice you will make. The reason for this is that each genre is a unique story form, with its own story goal and plot points. Match the type of story you want to tell with the genre. For instance, if you want to explore the question of “What is human and what is not human?” then a horror story is the best form.
7. Structure your story. Figure out the seven steps of classical story structure:
7. New Equilibrium.
For more information on story structure, read the best book on writing:
“The Anatomy of Story,” by John Truby.
8. Outline the chapters of your book. Give each chapter a name. Don’t just pick any title. Choose a title that will stimulate your imagination. You can evoke an entire story from a good title. This is another great technique from Ray Bradbury.
9. Write a list of scenes. Every scene has action, emotion, a goal, an opponent, conflict, a setting and a revelation (discovery).
10. Start writing! Now you’re ready to begin your story.
Get Started Now
Now that we’ve explored the various ways to come up with a story, it’s time to get started. Take out a sheet of paper. You may notice that it is currently blank. That’s fine. Don’t let it scare you. Now go through the action steps above and write down your ideas. Pick a genre, write down the basic structure of your story. Pick titles for some of the chapters of your book. Outline your first scene and start writing!
Hopefully, you’ll never need to worry about facing a blank page ever again!
– Mark O’Bannon
The Anatomy of Story
– Connie Martinson interviews John Truby.
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The Basics of Storytelling
By William F. Nolan
As a storyteller, you must begin by creating a protagonist who is real, three dimensional, with genuine emotions that play out over the course of your narrative. Your range is unlimited; anything can happen to your protagonist in any period of history or in any locale in which you choose to place him or her. Past or future, a real world, or a wholly imagined one.
The basics of storytelling are timeless. From taletellers on the streets of ancient Baghdad to the modern-day TV episode, the basic structure remains unchanged.
You begin with your protagonist. Hero or villain. Male or female. Young or old. Your protagonist wants something and he or she is on a quest to find that particular “something” be it the holy grail or a racing trophy… a way to survive a serious illness, or to pay off a gambling debt… to capture a wild stallion or win the heart of a potential lover… to find a hidden treasure, or to conquer the world.
That which your protagonist is seeking can be monumental or trivial, but it forms the heart of your story; it launches the action, sets the narrative in motion.
What happens during this quest, the trials and conflicts that your protagonist faces and either overcomes or fails to overcome (your protagonist need not always win!), these elements form the structure of your story. A weak man wants to become strong. A coward wants to become heroic. A lonely woman seeks a mate to end her loneliness.
There are countless goals that can motivate your characters.
In detective fiction, the goal becomes the solving of the mystery.
In science fiction it may involve reaching a distant galaxy.
In fantasy, it could center on the slaying of a dragon.
Your imagination sets the boundaries.
In my best-known novel, “Logan’s Run,” my protagonist is a future policeman active in an over-populated world – a “sandman” programmed to hunt down and terminate any citizen who runs from a state-decreed death at 21. When Logan himself turns 21 he elects to run. His eventual goal: to reach a legendary place, Sanctuary, where people are allowed to live, grow old, have a family. The conflict in my story occurs as Logan, in company with a female runner he learns to love, faces the multiple trials and dangers of my future world. Thus, the novel is totally goal-oriented.
As I have stated, the protagonist does not always win. In Hemingway’s, “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” his protagonist, Robert Jordan, comes to Spain to blow up an enemy bridge. However, he dies at the end, holding off advancing enemy troops so that his new love, Maria, can escape capture. Jordan’s basic quest has led to his death.
In Melville’s, “Moby Dick,” Captain Ahab’s quest involves running down the great white whale. As portrayed in the story, Ahab is a madman, darkly obsessed with his hunt for this massive creature of the sea. What happens along the way forms the story of Moby Dick.
Scott Fitzgerald’s celebrated novel, “The Great Gatsby,” centers on the protagonist’s quest for the lost love of his life, the elusive Daisy, his golden girl. The goal is never reached as he too, like Robert Jordan, dies at the climax.
Sometimes, several characters can have the same goal-as in Hammett’s, “Maltese Falcon.” Both the villains and the protagonist, Sam Spade, share the same quest for a jeweled black bird. The fact that the statue turns out to be worthless by the story’s climax has not affected the conflicts the characters faced throughout the narrative. The basic structure remained intact.
The format of storytelling is fixed – the protagonist, the quest, the trials, and the resolution, positive or negative. Any number of variations are possible within this format, but the basic structure remains.
We can all relate to a story which takes us on this journey toward triumph or defeat. You, as the storyteller, must function as the guide, leading us to the dramatic climax.
Now, there are several additional elements that are essential in telling a story – such as the proper use of dialogue, atmosphere, and locale, as well as the realistic creation of other characters who relate, in one way or another, to your protagonist. Also, your background must be convincing, whether it be another planet, a small sleepy town in the Midwest, or a vast metropolis such as New York or London, humming with life. The rendering must be real. (In Logan’s Run I was very careful to create my future world on a wholly realistic level; I dealt with all aspects of this future culture to achieve a three dimensional reality.)
Each story, long or short, must contain what I call “the arc of drama.” This arc begins at the point when your protagonist sets out to pursue his or her goal, builds steadily to a mid-point when the protagonist is dealing with conflict, and descends to the climax when his or her goal is realized or thwarted.
Along the way, if you are employing physical conflict, your protagonist may end up badly wounded (the bruised and battered private eye) or deceased (as in Hemingway and Fitzgerald) with the quest fulfilled or unfulfilled. (King Arthur never found the Holy Grail, but he gave it a helluva try!)
It’s all up to you, to how you choose to tell your story. Does your protagonist win or lose? In either case, the battle must be fought for the arc of drama to pay off.
Of course, you may with to create mental conflict rather than physical. Your protagonist can suffer emotional wounds in overcoming the trials he or she must face to reach a particular goal.
Also, the quest must have changed your protagonist in some manner or degree.
The trials he or she have undergone must affect your character by story’s end. Win or lose, the protagonist is altered by the conflicts faced within the body of your story.
In Bradbury’s “Farenheit 451,” the protagonist, Montag, is changed from book burner to book lover by story’s end. The quest and the change become one.
In Max Brand’s classic western, “Destry Rides Again,” the protagonist sets out to extract revenge on the men who sent him to prison. By the end, he has been changed, from a character who considers himself to be invincible to one who realizes he is indeed fallible and can be defeated by another, by a better man. This causes him to put away his guns in order to play a non-violent role in society.
In “Shane,” the gunman-hero fulfills his quest by killing the chief bad guy, but is wounded in body and soul; he can never return to the peaceful life he craves.
Changed, each of them. In one way or another.
I would strongly suggest, to the beginning storyteller, that he or she visit a local library and sift carefully through a dozen or so volumes of stories by Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, John Cheever, Joyce Carol Oates, or any professional author of like caliber. (Stephen King has much to teach about the art of storytelling.)
Analyze each story in these collections. Break down the basic structure. Find out how the writer created a real protagonist. Note the goal of each character and be aware of the conflicts facing him or her and just how they are resolved by the close of the narrative. Study dialogue and locale. See how the other characters relate to the protagonist.
In doing this, you will be charting the blueprint for your own stories. You will become aware of how the various elements of a story are brought together to form the arc of drama.
Simply because you can write a fine letter to your grandma does not mean you can tell a proper story. Telling a story is not an easy task, even if one adheres to the basics I’ve laid out in these pages. Hard work and relentless practice are required – but the final results are well worthwhile.
And write, write, write.
– William F. Nolan