You want to become a great writer. You feel like there’s a story in you, or three. But when you sit down to write, you find feelings, impressions, memories, and numerous disconnected ideas. How do you turn these random thoughts into stories? I’m about to tell you how to do it, so read closely. Stories come in all shapes and sizes and styles and are about innumerable different topics, but there is a story structure to how they work. It’s based on how life works. Before I tell you, I just want to emphasize this is why writing is important. Once you can decode how stories work, it helps you see how life works, then life makes a lot more sense.
One of my students in my Writers in Action course hit upon this formula by accident but didn’t quite realize it. All she needed was a little push to realize she was writing a classic–and therefore foolproof–story structure. Here it is. In every story, a character does something. Why? Good question. Sometimes in life, we don’t know why we do things, but when we’re writing a story, we’re the god of that story. We’re creating it, so we have to know why the character does that thing, even if the character doesn’t know. Got it?
We want something, ergo we do something.
Okay, if a character does something for a reason, that means she hopes for a certain outcome, ergo she has a goal. In real life, we don’t always know our goals, nonetheless, we have them. Maybe only a psychiatrist could figure it out, but that reason is there. You don’t have to know on some deep psychological level why your character wants what she wants, all you have to know is: What does she want? What is her goal in this moment? Then you can build your story structure.
Story Structure Dictates we Try, Try, and Try Again
Okay, now that your character is taking action toward a goal, let’s assume she doesn’t achieve her goal on the first try. If she did, it would be a very short story. So, let’s say the first attempt doesn’t get her to her goal. She must then try to achieve her goal a different way. Will she do the same thing only faster, harder, louder? Will she try to manipulate someone with a different tactic? Will she enlist help from someone else? There are millions of ways to achieve every goal, and humans are natural problem solvers, so if she doesn’t achieve her goal at first, she’ll try a different way. And this continues time and time again, thus creating your basic story structure. Each attempt could be a long, complicated one or a short, brief action. Your choice. Finally, the character achieves her goal or fails to achieve her goal, or achieves a certain aspect of it but loses something along the way, or decides to abandon the goal and pursue another one, and the process begins again. Even without thinking about it, I used that structure in this little travel memoir piece.
Knowing story structure helps you figure out what to do next
That’s it. If you examine most stories, films, TV shows, and novels, you’ll notice that story structure is basically what is happening in a million different permutations. So, if you’re writing a story and don’t know what should happen next, now you know. Remember the goal. Determine what’s next in the character’s attempt to achieve it, and you’ll know what needs to happen next.