Story Structure — Character Arc

In my previous blog I showed how a traditional Three-Act Structure can be broken down for practical purposes into four acts of approximate equal portions, with eight sequences, 8 plot points, and 8 stages of character arc. I don’t claim credit for any of these ideas. The diagram is the result of simply fusing together the ideas and methodologies of a number of different narrative structures promoted by a number of different story guru. As I mentioned in my previous blog, there is a considerable overlap of these ideas. They simply look at breaking down story structure in different ways: by Act, by Sequence, and by Plot Point.

Today I want to take a closer look at character arc.

In the diagram above I have looked at some of common elements of character arc as it applies to the main protagonist:

  1. The character starts in his ordinary world, and often has a flaw that holds him back from his full potential.
  2. Something happens that disturbs his life forever (the impetus/or call to adventure/catalyst/disturbance). He/she tries to avoid it, but the startling event forces him to act.
  3. He/she crosses the threshold into a new world, where he is out of his depth and struggles.
  4. He/she has to adapt and take more and more desperate measures.
  5. At the mid point he/she begins to learn the enormity of the task he faces, but resolves to continue.
  6. He/she tries a new plan which reaches a crisis point after which he loses all hope.
  7. He/she finally finds the strength for one last attempt and makes a critical choice to risk everything.
  8. He/she succeeds and in doing so has changed.

This kind of story arc, is the one I am most familiar with but it is by no means the only one. One of the most well known is the “Hero’s Journey” developed by Joseph Campbell, and modified and promoted by Christopher Vogler. It is usually set out in a circular structure, but it can be equally shown as though it was a three-act structure, with a character arc that matches the Hero’s Journey as the following diagram illustrates.

I have covered the Hero’s Journey, in my blog already. You can find it here.

Cristopher Vogler’s approach is an interesting one, and is based around the structure of mythical stories. Although in Vogler’s book, The Writer’s Journey, he shows how this approach is flexible and can be adapted to modern-day stories. Some writers, however, seek a much simpler approach.

Dan Harmon’s Story Circle

One such approach is Dan Harmon’s story circle. It is set out in a circular form similar to Vogler’s hero’s journey but with only eight simple stages to follows:

The eight stages are as follows:

  1. A character is in his zone of comfort (You)
  2. But they want something (Need)
  3. They enter an unfamiliar situation (Go)
  4. They adapt to it (Search)
  5. They get find what they want (Find)
  6. They pay a heave price for it (Take)
  7. They return to the familiar situation (Return)
  8. Having changed (Changed)

The beauty of Harmon’s story circle is that is simple and entirely framed around the protagonist action s (You). The story arc mimics the human learning experience. A hero develops a need for something important. He goes after it. He encounters problems and adapts to them, until he eventually finds what he wanted. He takes what he wants, but has to pay and important price for it. He returns to his normal world and demonstrates that he/she has changed in the process.

Is the Harmon circle fundamentally different from the four act structure I highlighted above? No. The four segments of the circle are pretty much the same as the four acts, but they are described in terms of the protagonist’s actions. The horizontal line splits the world into two parts: at the top –the normal familiar world; and below–the special world of chaos. The vertical line splits the hero’s journey into two halves: the right side is where the protagonists reacts; and the left side is where he takes decisive action. 1, 3, 5 and 7 and important crossover points.

One of the obvious questions about the approach is where is the climax? This occurs at 8 — where the hero demonstrates that he has changed. The climax is indeed the proof that the hero has changed and deserves his victory.

Another interesting point is 6, “Take and pay the price”. The hero’s success comes at a personal cost. This quarter is full of potential pain for the hero. It’s the “crisis” sequence in the simplified four-act structure.

When I first encountered Harmon’s circle I thought it was too simplistic. But as you get to use it to plan the basic story line, you find that simplicity often works. Advocates of the Harmon approach also emphasise that the approach can also be used on an Act and sequence basis as it incorporates the natural story building blocks.

So what do you think of Harmon’s circle?

Story structure simplified

Since I started this blog I have often visited the subject of story structure. It’s one of those subjects that excites me. Some writers will throw their hands in the air in horror at the idea of structure. Story is emotion and there is no unique formula that will emote a feeling in reader. It is down to the storycraft of the writer. And writers shouldn’t write to a formula, because it’s too logical and predetermined.

I agree to a point. But it doesn’t mean that it is wrong to look at the underlying structure of the story in the planning stage, editing stage or better still, both. A story with a bad structure probably won’t work. But having a good structure doesn’t guarantee success.

Success in writing of the kind of JK Rowling or Stephen King and the other greats is like a Black Swan event — extremely rare. And success is unlikely to be due to their story structure alone. It’s also unlikely that some of these great writers would even admit that they look at structure. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t ingrained into their DNA.

So what is structure.

Story structure mimics the learning process of ordinary life. We have unfilled desires and encounter opportunities/problems during the course of our life. We make choices and act on them. Our choices sometimes have complications and unexpected consequences. We try again. The problem escalates until it reaches a crisis, which is either resolved, defeats us or is abandoned as a goal. And in the course of this process, we learn and change.

Most of the work on story structure comes from the Movie industry, where it has evolved into a quasi science. Each of the story gurus have their own approach to story design, with their own vocabulary to explain it. There is the Three Act Structure, the Four Act Structure, the Six Act Structure, and Nine Act Structure; the Save the Cat Plot Beats; the Sequence Method; the Mini Movie, The Hero’s Journey; Harmon’s Plot Circle, and many more. But when you look into the detail, they all focus on deconstructing the story into a number of defined elements and place a slightly different emphasis of different aspects. So there is a considerable amount of overlap between these ideas.

The oldest form of structure is the Three Act Structure, which dates to the days of Plato. The Three Act Structure is still popular today. The First Act is about the set-up for the story, introducing the main character and setting up the story premise.The second Act is all about the confrontation and is roughly twice the length of the the First Act. The Third Act is about the resolution of the story. Often there is one or more major events at the mid point of the story that breaks the Second Act into two parts. The first half being about how the main character reacts to the central conflict. And the second half being about the character taking control and going on the offensive.

Splitting the Second Act at the mid point is like having four acts of equal length. This to me makes sense from a practical perspective, and I’ve used the approach below to show you how it works. I’ve also broken down the Acts into eight sequences, and have identified the main plot points, character arc, and the protagonist’s escalating interaction with antagonists. The structure below is technically for stories categorised as Comedy (anything other than a Tragedy) — where we have a positive ending. Tragedies on the other hand, have a different pattern where they have a False Triumph at the end of Act 3 and a tragic ending at the end of Act 4.

ACT 1

Act I is all about introducing the main character in his ordinary world and showing how he is drawn into the central conflict, first by the “Call To Adventure” (also called Impetus, Inciting incident, Catalyst, Disturbance), which often the main character initially ignores. For example, where Luke Skywalker gets the message from Leia ‘Help me Obi Wan..” But he refuses to go with Obi Wan to Alderaan.

Later, at turning point (TP1), there is a devastating event, which forces the main character to act. For example, Luke Skywalker discovers his uncle and aunt have been slaughtered by the the imperial guards. This forces him to make an important decsion go with Obi Wan on his quest. At which point he Crosses the Threshold into the New world of Act 2.

Not all stories have a Call to Adventure and a TP1. Sometimes they are the one and same event where the protagonists makes their mind up to act immediately. For example, in the Hunger Games, Katniss’s sister is chosen from the lottery to be part of the Hunger Games (TP1), and Katniss immediately volunteers to take her place and goes on the train to the Capital (Crossing the Threshold/ Point of No Return).

Act 1 normally consists of two or three sequences. The first sequence (Character in status quo) is usually about the main character and the ordinary world he/she lives in before the Call to Adventure impacts on their life. The second sequence is normally about the character finding his story goal, and establishing the Central Story Question — will the hero reach his/her goal? The main character often refuses the call and is drawn into accepting by the effects of TP1.

In Star Wars there are three sequences.

The first sequence deals with the Origin of the Conflict before the main character is involved. This is the sequence where Darth Vaders forces invade Leia’s space ship and she hides the battle plans in R2D2 and sends them to Tatooine. It also acts as a powerful Hook — an intensive action sequence to keep the audience’s attention until the main character is introduced.

The second sequence (Character in Status Quo) introduces Luke and ends with the Call to Adventure.

And the third sequence ends with Luke discovering his dead uncle and aunt (TP1).

The other aspect of Act 1 is to show the main character’s flaws and establish the story goal. Luke is a young, and impulsive farm boy that dreams of becoming a space pilot. And by the end of the Act he has a story goal– to take the battleplans of the Deathstar to Alderaan with Obi Wan.

ACT 2

Act 2 is all about the pursuit of the quest. Act 1 gives the main character a goal to pursue, but he/she is dealing with an unfamiliar world. This is the road of trials, where they find new allies and enemies. It is a period of ‘fun and games’ with plenty of action. It is a period of learning and adapting.

In Star Wars, it shows Luke out of his depth in Mos Eisley spaceport, Obi Wan recruiting Hans Sol and Chewbacca with an exciting escape. This is the first sequence.

The second sequence sequence is much shorter – lightsaber training. The second sequence (First Culmination) ends with devastating news. Alderaan is destroyed and they are caught in a tractor beam (TP2). This is the Mid Point.

ACT 3

The Mid Point is full of complications. In the first sequence (New Complications), they devise a plan to escape from the Deathstar and find that Leia is scheduled for execution. This gives Luke a new goal — to rescue the princess. They hatch a plan to rescue the princess, but it all goes wrong and they end up in the trash compacter and have to escape from it.

In the second sequence (Crisis & Main Culmination) Obi Wan deactivates the tractor beam, the team get back to the ship, they escape the deathstar, fight off their fighters, and get the plans of the deathstar to the resistance. This sequence has a major turning point TP3 before the end of the sequence, where Luke witnesses the death of Obi Wan at the hands of Darth Vader.

In many stories after this point there is a Low point where the main character reaches rock bottom and wallows in pain, followed by an epiphany moment where he find the means and resource to give it one last shot.

This was not really the case in Star Wars. Luke doesn’t seem to spend too much time getting over the loss of his mentor, and the epiphany moment comes before the Climatic Moment in the Critical Choice of Act 4, where Luke chooses to use the force to destroy the Deathstar.

ACT 4

The first sequence (Climax) is all about the lead up to the climactic moment. In the case of Star Wars, the Climactic Moment is where Luke uses the force to destroy the deathstar.

The second sequence (Conclusion/Denouement) is the resolution of the story. It’s a short sequence to see the heroes get their medals. We find the characters have changed. Luke is the process of becoming a Jedi Knight, and Hans Solo has for once done the heroic thing.

Limitations

Perhaps you’re thinking this structure work only works for action movies and is not really relevant for your type of stories. Or maybe your stories are about romance, or about multiple protagonists. Certainly romance novels have their own tropes and structures, and you might find studying them more beneficial. But what I think you will find that there is a natural flow of ups and downs, and the main turning points, follow to some degree the patterns we see in the sequences above.

Sub Plots

The structure outlined above is about the central conflict in the story. It is a helicopter view of the central conflict in the story and should be seen in that way. There may well be an important B story or even C story that is woven into the story. Sub-plots are usually linked to the theme of the story and main character arc.

In Die Hard, there is an important subplot around JohnMcClane and his estranged wife.

In Lethal Weapon there is an important subplot about the relationship between a suicidal Martin Riggs and Roger Murtaugh a veteran officer facing retirement.

These subplots are as complex, if not more complex than the underlying central conflict. But without these sub-plots the movies would have been flat and uninteresting. So sub-plots should be broken down and planned in the same way as the central conflict. And then woven into the story in a seamless way.

Sequences and Scenes

It is relatively easy to think of story structure as a series of plot points and turning points in each act. But plot points and turning points also occur in every sequence and every scene although not on the same level.

In each scene the protagonist may have a simple goal in mind, but encounters a problem or opportunity during the scene or sequence. They make a choice and act on it. And their choices have consequences, which in turn lead to new goals, actions and consequences.

So as I have already explained, the underlying pattern of all stories are driven by a process of learning and adapting to change, and in the process character is changed. In Comedies they normally change for the better. However where a character fails to learn and adapt to change the story will normally end in tragedy.

What do you think?

Writing Character

Many of the articles on writing fiction differentiate between character-driven stories and plot-driven stories. I find the distinction is a bit of a misnomer as all stories are really character-driven. For example, James Bond stories may well be action-filled but without Bond committed to his goal/mission there would be no story at all.

What I believe the real distinction is between action stories that have strong external conflict (like the Bond movies) and those where the conflicts are more of an internal or interpersonal nature. For example, the relationship between a father and daughter as in the 1981 movie ‘On Golden Pond’.

So what is character?

Writers may well describe their characters in terms of physical attributes — eyes, hair, physique etc. And the character’s appearance may well be important for him or her to fit the needs of the story. But these attributes are not what make the character. A character is defined by his/her behaviour. That is, ‘what’ he/she does an ‘why’ he/she does it. And these questions will only be answered in a story, when the character is in the midst of conflict.

There is a wonderful quote by Martin Luther King Jr. that illustrates this point:

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

Of course MLK wasn’t addressing a writers’ conference at the time. But it is as true in the world of fiction as it is in the real world. A person’s character is defined by what they do.

Why characters do what they do depends on a number of factors:

  • their beliefs about themselves and the world (often based on their past experience)
  • the values they hold dear and the conviction with which they hold them (eg Family, Justice, Love, Fair Play, but also negative values — Self Interest, Revenge, Jealousy, Power.)
  • their personality: introvert/extrovert, stoical/flamboyant, talkative/quiet, irksome/ compliant, and their personal quirks.
  • their personal wants and desires and their willingness to follow them.
  • their hopes and fears.
  • their special skills (super spy skills like James Bond, super detective like Colombo, or archer (Robin Hood, Katnis)
  • their weaknesses and flaws.
  • the influence of others.

Some of these factors obviously overlap. A character driven by personal self-interest with no regard for others is going to have a serious character flaw, and that character flaw may be attributed to something that happened to them in childhood or to the bad influence of another character.

Comic book characters often have dark histories. For example, Batman’s dark character is very much the product of witnessing his parents’ murder and wanting to extract justice. Similarly many of Batman’s villains have a past that drove them to villainy.

A character may also hold conflicting values. For example, a mother might want career recognition but this value may conflict with her family value and her love of her child and husband. These are sources of internal conflicts.

Similarly, a character may long to pilot a space craft, but if he/she does nothing about it, nothing happens. Desire alone won’t drive a story if there is no willingness to commit. Main characters therefore need to drive themselves forward towards a tangible goal. Otherwise they are just uninteresting reactive characters.

Some writers find it easy to craft their characters. They know them well and how they will respond in difficult situations. Other writers may discover the true nature of their character when getting to know them in the course of the story. There is no right way or wrong way to develop a story.

Some writers pick a concept for the story, and then mould the character to fit the concept. Others may start with a character they find interesting — for example a one-legged dyslexic detective. And then look to find plot situations that will stretch the detective.

Writers also need to understand how a character changes during the course of the story-line. This is the character arc. He/she may start weak through inexperience and gather strength to overcome that weakness during the course of the conflict. For example, Luke Skywalker that moves for farm boy to Jedi Knight. Or he/she may have a negative arc. For example, the transformation of Anakin into Darth Vader.

But not all characters have an arc. These characters are resolute in their beliefs and cannot be torn away from their chosen path. This can apply to both good characters and evil characters. Nothing changes them.

Knowing how a character is going to respond to story conflict is part of the job of a good writer. We are not just concerned about the results of the ‘the quest’ or ‘challenge’ the main character faces. We are also concerned with how it affects the main characters and whether it makes them better or worse. This is the emotional effect of story on the reader who follows in the path of the hero/heroine. And this is what connects the writer to the reader.

Story types — Tragedies and the dark side

I’m a writer of speculative fiction that likes to write stories that have have positive endings. I want to see my main characters overcome their weaknesses and transform into heroes and heroines. For example, Luke Skywalker transforms from a shy farm boy to Jedi Knight. (Yes, I’m a big Star Wars fan). I like to see good overcome evil, for love to find a way — the happily-ever-after ending. Yes, that may sound kind of soppy. But that’s the way I am. And that is the reason why I’m not normally drawn to dark tragedies.

Hollywood with some notable exceptions also seems to agree with me as as most movie stories have positive endings. Although the reason for this maybe because they are easier to make and financially more attractive.

In Shakespeares day, plays were categorised between ‘tragedies’ (those with sad endings) and with all rest categorised as ‘comedies’. In this case, comedies were not just about humorous stories although some, of course, were. Many of Shakespeares best works were tragedies: Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Othello, King Lear and Macbeth.

But tragedies that have sad endings are not necessarily dark. Romeo and Juliet was certainly a sad endings, but the ending was a positive message that ‘not even death could overcome true love’.

Horror stories too, can have positive endings although many don’t. The movie ‘Alien’ is a horror movie in space, but the hero Rigby overcomes the Alien Queen. In comparison, Alien Covenant had a darker and more sinister ending. Stephen King, of course, is the master of horror stories and dark endings. He once wrote:

There is no such thing as a happy ending. I never met a single one to equal “Once Upton a time”.

Monsters are real, and ghosts are real too. They live inside us. And sometimes, they win.

So what are modern dark tragedies? They are stories where the main character undergoes a negative character arc from good to bad. One of the best examples I have seen recently is the series Breaking Bad.

Recently, I was a looking for a new movie or series to watch on Netflix and I chose to watch the first episode of Breaking Bad to see if it was worth watching. I and my family ended up binge watching the whole five series. It was compulsive watching.

The main character in Breaking Bad is Walter White, a chemistry teacher, who discovers he has cancer and turns to meth-making to repay his medical debts and provide a future legacy for his family after his death. Of course, Walter’s initial morally questionable action leads him down a difficult path where he takes increasingly immoral actions. So what started as a plan to provide for his family after his death, becomes twisted into a reason that he did it ‘because he was good at it’.

Breaking Bad is therefore a story about how a good man, with initial good intentions turns to the dark side. He’s a Jekyll and Hyde or Frankenstein character that gets corrupted by his own hubris. It was always going to end badly, and it did.

Why do we find these types of characters so interesting? I think we start with empathy in understanding their dilemma. But as their actions become increasingly questionable that empathy turns to overwhelming curiosity as to how the outcome will come out. There is always the thought that they might just find their way to moral salvation and do the right thing. But in the end they are always destroyed by their own hubris. Karma gets them in the end as they have to pay the price for their past wrong doing. So there is an underlying moral theme to these types of stories that dates back to Shakespearian times.

Could I write a character like Walter White — probably not. He’s a complex character and has a complex character arc. The skill set in writing such a character is beyond me. But then again, it’s not the kind of story I would want to write. What about you?

Taking inspiration from the movies

As a writer and story-teller I have often taken inspiration from the movies. When I write I create a movie in my head and write what I see and experience. I’m not sure all writers necessarily think the same way. To me the words on the page are just a medium by which I can convey those sights and sounds and emotions to the reader. While others may fall in love with the poetry of the words themselves.

Of course, the written medium is different from the visual medium. Not all good books would make good movies, and not all good movies would translate into the written form. Yet as a writer there is a lot I have learned from the movies about story telling. And some of the best books in my library on storytelling are those that have been designed for scriptwriters and movie makers. In fact the movie industry has almost developed a science around the subject of story telling.

Does that mean that a writer needs to understand all the tools and techniques of scriptwriters — the three act structure, the sequence methodology, the hero’s journey et al. No. I’m sure the most of the successful writers are successful writers, because they are intuitively brilliant writers. But if you’re not one of them, perhaps one way of improving your storytelling is through analysing movies.

For one thing, there is very little fluff in a movie. Every scene is there because it has a purpose. And if it doesn’t, it gets cut. It’s a lesson that every writer should understand when editing their material. Sometimes more means having less. One of the expressions you may have heard about writing and editing is to “To kill your darlings”. That is, you may love the scene, but if it simply doesn’t fit into the story you need to cut it. Believe me, I’ve had a lot of darlings killed. To write a 70,000 word novel I’ve discarded or rewrote tens of thousands of words.

Recently I’ve been watching some of my older movies in my DvD and Blueray collection. It’s surprising how much you can forget about a movie. Last night I chose V for Vendetta, a dystopian political movie directed by James McTeigne released in 2005 and based on a 1988 DC Comics limited series by Alan Moore and David Lloyd.The story depicts a near-future, dystopian, post-apocalyptic version of the United Kingdom. It’s a world where the power of the US has been destroyed by a second civil war and a pandemic of the “St Mary’s Virus” ravages Europe. The UK is ruled by a right-wing fascist party. But the techniques it uses is that of any totalitarian party, denying free-speech, controlling the media and narrative, and treating any criticism as hate speech or terrorism.

Fifteen years ago, when I first saw the movie, I thought it was interesting but a little far-fetched.

Today in our current world of pandemic, lockdowns, racial riots, where free speech is under threat from cancelling culture and dissenting views are labeled racist, xenophobic or deniers, and where the Big Tech companies are the arbiters of misinformation, it is frightening how close to we are to going down that path. But that is one of the purposes of good science fiction. It looks ahead to the future, and warns us of the dangers we face. In that respect V for Vendetta was a great movie to make you think. Do I really think we are heading towards a totalitarian society like that controlled by the Norsefield party? No. But that doesn’t mean that are rights to free speech and individual freedom are not under threat by more subtle means. We live in interesting times.

So are there any sci fi movies that have inspired you?

Genre — reader expectations

A recent piece of advice I heard from a successful author was for new writers to focus their attention on their chosen genre. But what does that mean?

I think it means to be successful you have to give your potential readers what they want. The problem however is discovering your potential reader base and what they like. At a broad level this is genre related, but it also goes a lot deeper into sub genres and styles that are author related.

Readers tend to follow authors they have already read and will choose new authors only if they are persuaded by the cover, marketing blurb and reviews that the new author might provide the same kind of experience.

So let’s first look at the main broad genre categories for fiction using Amazon’s Best Seller listings:

  • Romance (17)
  • Science Fiction & Fantasy (35)
  • Mystery, thriller & suspense (42)
  • Literature & Fiction (19)

The numbers quoted are the Amazon sub-categories within the genre. For example, for Science Fiction & Fantasy there are 16 categories for Fantasy and 19 categories for science fiction. Many of the categories cross-over. For example, under Romance there are categories for science fiction, time travel and action & adventure. And there are also further sub-sub-categories.

If you look at Science Fiction best seller listing, Amazon lists 19 categories:

  • Adventure
  • Alien Invasion
  • Alternative History
  • Anthologies and short stories
  • Colonisation
  • Cyberpunk
  • Dystopian
  • First contact
  • Galactic Empire
  • Genetic Engineering
  • Hard Science Fiction
  • Metaphysical & Visionary
  • Military
  • Post-Apocalyptic
  • Space exploration
  • Space opera
  • Steampunk
  • Time travel
  • TV, Movie, Video Game Adaptions

Amazon permits authors to list their books under up to ten different categories although they only identify three categories in the description of the book. My own novel, Collision, is shown on Amazon under the following categories:

  • Time travel romance (a Romance category)
  • Time travel science fiction
  • Time travel fiction

Collison is largely based in today’s world, but the time travel element puts it into the ‘science fiction’ genre. It’s described by my own readers in their reviews as a fast action-story and therefore it also fits into action & adventure. And there is a strong romantic B-story between the main lead characters and so it fits into the time travel romance category.

If you are a new author, finding where you fit your novel into this complex category matrix can be difficult, particularly if the scope of the novel crosses different genre. A good place to start is to look at novels of authors similar to your own and how they are categorised on Amazon. But don’t be surprised if you get some odd results. I’m sure other authors have found difficulty properly categorising their novels for Amazon’s system.

I would also suggest you check out the types of books that Amazon lists under each category or you might be surprised by the nature of the category. Originally, when I published Collision I used the “Romance Science Fiction” category. It was a mistake as many of the books in that category weren’t a good fit at all — most have covers with beefy semi-naked alien males.

So finding authors with a similar ‘feel’ to your own books is really what understanding genre is all about. The “Customers who bought this also bought” and “Customers who viewed this item also viewed” sections on Amazon’s site is also good place to find similar books to your own. If you use Sponsored Advertising on Amazon, then you can find which “Keywords” work best on Amazon’s sales pages. Book titles and authors names make excellent keywords. And from this information you can see which sales arise from advertising on a particular author’s book page on Amazon.

Taking Collision as an example, the author keywords that work best for me are Jodi Taylor, and Philip Peterson both of which are great time travel writers. But there are other sci-fi writers which the connection is less obvious and some writers that you might expect there to be a connection but there just isn’t. Finding those authors for which you share a common reader interest and studying them is perhaps the best way to understanding your own genre. That doesn’t mean you need to follow the approach of these writers, but you need to understand it.

At the end of the day every writer wants to produce a unique story experience. It just has to be the type of emotional experience your reader is expecting.

Beginnings and Endings

One of the first books I ever read on the art of writing emphasised the need for a good opening line, opening paragraph and at least ten opening pages to catch the reader’s attention. It’s advice I find difficult to disagree with. Writers need to arouse their readers’ curiosity.

Here are some of the best opening lines that do precisely that:

‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.’ — 1984 by George Orwell

‘They shoot the white girl first.’ — Paradise by Toni Morrison.

‘It was a pleasure to burn.’– Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.

‘All children, except one, grow up.’– Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie

And how can we forget those fantastic opening lines from the classics:

‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.’–Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

‘Call me Ishmael.’ — Moby Dick by Herman Melville

‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.’ — A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.

One can only wonder at the wordcraft of these classic writers and want to emulate them. However, the best time to do this is not when you’re writing the first draft of your story. It is when you have finished your story and can re-write a suitable start. Firstly, if you try to use a clever opening from the start, you may never get past that opening line. You maybe setting yourself too high a standard, particularly if you’re trying to emulate these classics. And secondly, once you have completed the story, you’ll have a different perspective on how the opening should link to the ending.

That brings me to the endings. There are some writers that can start writing a novel without understanding how the story will end and believe the joy of writing is in discovering that ending. These are the writers who see themselves as ‘pantsers’, and don’t like the idea of plotting in advance. If that works for them, then fine. But I could never write entirely that way myself. Once I understand the what the central conflict of the story is going to be about, the next most important element is the ending. The ending sets the direction of the story, and for me, if I don’t know the direction in which the story is going, and the big points along the way, then I can’t write. That doesn’t mean that I won’t change the story ending during the process of writing if I see a better ending in sight. I’m constantly thinking about it and ways I can improve it. And in three books I’ve published I’ve always managed to improve on my initial ideas.

Story endings are hard to create. They must have an element of surprise, but at the same time give the reader the emotional experience they expected. Many romance novels have a ‘happy ever after’ ending. But that doesn’t mean that they can’t have an element of unpredictability. For me, endings are much harder than beginnings and require just as much polish and finesse as the openings. A good opening maybe a good reason for a reader to buy your book, but a good ending will ensure he buys your next one.

If you’re a new writer or an experienced writer let me know what you think. What is harder, the beginning or the end of the story?

A Decade of Writing

March 2021 will mark an important anniversary for me. It will be a decade since I retired from ‘normal’ work. I was an accountant in the City of London working for one of the largest firms of accountants in the world. It was a job I enjoyed, but working in an accountancy practice is a young man’s job that involves long hours and an enormous commitment. I had reached retirement age, and it was time for something new. Most in my position, would have considered a hobby like golf, sailing or walking. But I’m different.

I had always wanted to write a novel. “Collision” was my first. I always knew I could write. I had written four obscure accounting texts, one of which went to four editions, and I contributed to industry accounting texts on banking and leasing. But I didn’t know if I had the imagination and drive to write a novel. That’s a real challenge.

Well, a decade on, I ‘ve published three novels and am working on my fourth. Four books in ten years is not a great output. But it was never about the output or the money. I’ve learned a lot about storytelling, writing, publishing and marketing, much of which I have discussed in this blog. If you are new to writing I hope the blog I have produced will help you find your way. There are some 84 blogs on the subject.

There are lots of traps for a new writer to fall into. And a number of sharks out there that will promise you help and support for a large fee. Fortunately, I avoided most of them. The truth is that as a writer all you need is a computer and writing software that will output. I would recommend Scrivener (which is about $47) or any other software that can output Epub and Mobi formats. This is not a huge investment.

The only other essential expenses I incur are for editing, cover design and advertising. How much you choose to spend on each is up to you. It’s possible to get a good cover for under $100 on Fiverr. For advertising, I use Amazon Advertising Sponsored Products and keywords, but you need to tread carefully. The largest expense is probably the cost of editing. I do most of the basic editing myself, but a professional proofreader is a necessity for the final proof.

If you’re new to writing and publishing, then you need to understand that there is a learning curve involved. You need to understand dialogue and other writing format conventions, book formatting conventions, advertising and more. It will take time to learn. It took me 20 months to publish my first novel but I was a complete novice at marketing. Even now after ten years I’m still learning about publishing and marketing. The alternative is to undertake a training course to fast track the process. There are a number of good courses out there. But they don’t come cheaply.

If you are a new Indie writer and have a burning question, ask me on the blog. Or if you prefer, email me through my Contact page.

Story Themes

I normally blog monthly, but I missed-out in December for personal reasons. For many, 2020 was an annus horribilis (horrible year) — it was the year of the pandemic. But for me it was exceptionally sad. I lost two dear family members near the end of the year, one expected and one very unexpected.

It made me realise life is not always what we want it to be. It can be fragile and unfair.

It also made me wonder why we as humans embrace stories that stand for fairness so much. Is it a reaction to seeing unfairness in real life? Our fictional characters are made to suffer, but in the end they eventually succeed in their goals or sacrifice themselves for some higher cause. Stories like this have been told since the days of cavemen. They have a strong moral element underlying the story line that celebrates heroism and fairness.

I realise that not all stories end happily-ever-after. Although I certainly have a preference for them. But even Shakespeares tragedies had a strong underlying moral element. Stories tell us that good will win over evil, that justice will prevail, that man can seek redemption, that a hero will choose duty over self interest, that even death cannot conquer true love.

Someone once said that stories are there to reveal some universal truth about human nature. And sometimes this is not always positive. For example, that power can corrupt, or that hubris comes before a fall. But even these stories are about human morality.

As a reader you probably read for a variety of reasons. It is a form of escapism where go for adventure and fun. We connect with the characters we love and follow them on an emotional journey. Maybe you don’t think too much about the theme underlying the story. But it is there, just like it was in our caveman days.

Simple story patterns

In my blog over the years, I have written a lot about story structure. Story structure is all about the foundations of a story. From childhood we are introduced to stories and quickly understand their patterns. Once-upon-a-time… and they all lived happily every after.

Remember this one:

Jack takes his family cow to sell, but naively exchanges it for worthless beans. His mother is annoyed and throws the beans away. Up shoots a bean stalk. Jack steals the hen that lays the golden eggs from the giant and escapes down the beanstalk. And chops down the beanstalk before the giant can catch him.

We have all the basics here. A protagonist to identify with — Jack. An opportunity/problem that comes into his life — a quest to recover the hen that lays golden eggs. An antagonist to complicate matters — the giant. A climax — jack escapes from the giant and cuts down the beanstalk. And a character arc — Jack goes from naive child to hero.

As we get older the storylines get a little more complex but we still see the same underlying patterns.

Most romance stories have a simple plot. Boy meets girl. They initially dislike each other but are forced together. Love blossoms. Something goes wrong that forces them apart and then the lovers reconcile.

Most action stories are good-versus-evil stories. The protagonist underdog puts his life on the line to save the world. And just when evil seems triumphant, he/she manages to pull off the impossible and defeat evil.

There are coming-of-age stories when a young protagonist learns to stand up for themselves or overcome some weakness. And there are redemption stories where a flawed protagonist learns the true meaning of life (Christmas Carol).

Mystery, crime and horror all have their own patterns too. And they have their tropes: the down-and-out PI, the studiously clever detective that solves an impossible crime, or the selfish group of kids that provoke the ire of some psychopathic killer.

There is something about stories that we recognise in our emotional DNA and that we never seem to get enough of. We want to root for hero/heroine to win the day, but usually not until they have survived enough pain. Winning should never be effortless.

So as writers we need to understand these patterns are at the very heart of our stories. In any story there are two fundamental storylines. The main plot or protagonist’s outer journey, and the character arc or protagonist’s inner journey. But these two story lines are by no means the only elements we see in a modern novel or movie. Otherwise we would be limited to writing fairy tales.

So novels and movies weave in a number of important storylines about protagonist’s relationships with other main characters: the antagonist, the love interest/buddy, and sometimes a mentor/confidant, or sidekick. These are no less important than the two main storylines, because they add colour and realism to the characters and are the reason we connect with them. Combining all these storylines into one a cohesive story is by no means easy. But writing is a craft that requires both talent and technique and, like most crafts, takes time to develop.