A story is more than a beginning a middle and an end. Seasoned writers know that each part has a bunch of specific functions to perform. If any of them fail the story will be less than satisfying for the reader. This series is about more than the ABCs of how to write a good story. I’ll deep dive into how the right beginning, middle, and end can make a good story. But before we start, we need to find common definitions of terms writers throw around.
There are hundreds of decisions to make before you start writing a story. The writer makes some of these decisions subconsciously and often makes them in a willy-nilly sort of order. Each writer’s process is different and that is okay. So, today we’re going start making decisions by defining the word story.
There are hundreds of variations on the definition so I’m going to be arbitrary. I find Lisa Cron’s definition most accurate and useful.
A story is about how the things that happen affect someone in pursuit of a difficult goal, and how that person changes as a result.–Story Genius by Lisa Cron
There are stories where the person pursuing the goal does not change. We’ll delve into that later. For now, let’s go with Lisa’s definition.
Why should we define the word story? How do you know if you’ve written a successful story if you can’t define what a story is? So there you are. The first decision a writer makes is what definition of story am I going to use.
What is the Story Kernel?
Often what sets a writer on the path to write a story is a story kernel. The story kernel is the main idea of the story. It can be one idea—a story title, a lyric from a song, a stanza of a poem, a part of a conversation overheard, etc. Or it can be several ideas together.
Ideas are everywhere when you train yourself to look for them. I recommend an idea file or journal. Write down every idea that comes to you.
It doesn’t matter if it’s a good idea. Often the first kernel isn’t a “good” idea. Often it takes two or three or more ideas together to make a story.
Write down your initial idea and why it appeals to you. You’ll use this later.
What Kind of Story?
By what kind I mean something more general than genre. Here are a few of the questions you need to ask yourself.
Drama, tragedy, comedy or satire? Someone who has studied Greek plays would say that drama and tragedy are the same thing. I make a distinction because a tragedy is always tragic. A drama can explore big themes but have a non-tragic ending.
Will your story be primarily an inner journey story or an external journey story? An inner journey is an emotional one. It usually begins with a fault or wound to the protagonist’s psyche. An external journey is the physical actions she must take to get the object of her desire.
Will the protagonist succeed or fail on her internal journey?
Will the protagonist succeed or fail on her external journey
Is your story of grand scale or is it a small, intimate story?
A story of grandeur will need a story kernel that encompasses changes that affect a whole community, or country, or the universe. A more intimate story will affect one individual or a family or a small community.
Does your story have a strong theme or moral or is it a story meant to entertain? (Please note, all stories entertain. Some are lighter on theme and moral than others. That is not a judgment, it’s a choice the writer makes.)
Our discussion of story structure has a long way to go but this is as good of a place to pause as any. One of the things I’ve discovered is that every story I write has its own rhythm. The order in which I tackle structure is different every time. And that is okay.
If you would like to study structure on your own, you can find a list of my favorite how-to-write books on my Writing Resources page.
I appreciate contributions to this discussion. So if you have questions or comments—feel free to express yourself in the comments below. I’ll do my best to answer your questions.
Many writers completely pants the first draft and apply structure in the second draft. And there are many writers who draft a fifty-page outline before they begin. Experiment with what works for you. You may find you work one way very well. Or, you may find that your path varies with each story. This is only the beginning of the ABCs of how to write a good story—YOUR story is more than it’s parts. So keep writing and I’ll see you here next week.