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.

Editing – early lessons learnt from professional editors

edit manuscript

In this blog I want to discuss editing, why it is so important, and when to do it. I also want to draw upon some of my early experiences with professional editors and communication in the business world.

A simple definition of editing from Google is as follows:

Editing is a stage of the writing process in which a writer or editor strives to improve a draft ( and sometimes prepare it for publication) by correcting errors and by making words and sentences clearer, more precise, and more effective.

I think all writers will agree that the quality of a publication depends in part on the effectiveness of the editing process. There is nothing more infuriating than finding errors in a published work, or having a review that disparages your work because of errors. Patricia Fuller explains the importance of editing in an interesting way as follows:

Writing without revising is the literary equivalent of waltzing out of the house in your underwear.

So if we are all agreed about the importance of editing, who should do it? The first stage of the editing process should always be done by the writer before submission to an editor. The second stage of editing should ideally be done by an editor, subject to a final review and edit by the writer.

CJ Webb explains the intensity of the writer’s process as follows:

Edit your manuscript until your fingers bleed and you have memorized every last word. Then when you are certain you are on the verge of insanity… edit one more time.

If a writer cannot use and editor, then he/she should leave the material for a significant period of time (months) before attempting to edit the material, and approach his/her review as if he/she were reviewing someone else’s work. The time gap will help to enforce an element of objectivity over your work. However, if you wish to publish your work I would always recommend the use an editor.

So how should the writer prepare his draft for the editor? Should he wait to complete the first draft before starting to edit, or edit as he/she goes along?

This is one of those areas where writers will have differing views in much the same way as they differ in their attitudes to detailed planning.

There are writers that write a scene, and then edit the same scene the following day before starting a new scene. And at the opposite extreme, there are writers that refuse to edit until the first draft is complete. For example, Natalie Goldberg in Writing Down the Bones says:

Don’t cross out. (That is editing as you write. Even if you write something you didn’t mean to write, leave it.) Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation, grammar. (Don’t even care about staying in the margins and lines on the page.) Lose control. Don’t think. Don’t get logical. Go for the jugular. (If something comes up in your writing that is scary or naked, drive right into it. It probably has lots of energy.)

This is what I would describe as ‘free’ writing. I have tried it in ten minute bursts, and it can be wonderful for developing a scene. But while you might find some gems in the material you will also generate a lot of garbage. I couldn’t bear to endure this approach for a 70-90,000 word first draft. I guess like many writers I am a bit of a perfectionist and leaving something wrong would continue to irritate me until I corrected it. But I can see the merits of Goldberg’s idea of getting the story down in writing as quickly as possible, and not being paralysed by perfectionism. If you’re like me, there is a happy medium somewhere between these extremes.

As W. Somerset Maugham once famously said:

There are three rules of writing a novel. Unfortunately no one knows what they are.

The point I am making is that writers write and revise in many different ways. You need to find out what works for you. The one point writers do agree on is that revision is a vital part of the process.

My first experience of external editors was in the 1980s. In those days I was the editor of a technical newsletter for a global firm of accountants. I was also the author of four technical books published by Euromoney, Tolleys and Farringdon Press. I won’t bore you with the details of the publications. But they were subject to detailed technical review by a large number of technical experts, an internal communications expert and an editor from the publishing industry.

I learnt a very important lesson: there is nothing more permanent that the published word. It follows that any technical publication has to be correct. The more technical eyes that review the material, the better. But technical eyes are not enough. It also has to be clear and concise, and this is where an editor or communications consultant can add value, even if they are unfamiliar with the technical nature of the material.

My first experience of a consultants review was a painful experience. He congratulated me on the excellent quality of my draft, but returned it to me covered in red ink. Any writer that has received his/her manuscript from an editor like this will understand the emotions that this can create. I thought I could write — and all this red ink! But as writers we can learn an enormous amount from this process.

One of the first lessons I learnt was the need to write where possible in the active voice. You have probably heard the same advice. For example, if you say “I slashed my sword across his throat…” It sounds much more effective and in character’s point of view.  Whereas “the villains throat was slashed…” sounds like we are in the author’s head, not the main character’s head.

But there is another reason for using the active voice. It is so much clearer about who is doing what to whom. For example, if I write “It is recommended that…” It is unclear who is recommending the action. It is far more clear to say “The Government recommends that…” 

Many of the lessons I learnt when writing business publication about the importance of consistency, clarity and brevity helped in the transformation from business writer to fiction writer. But there is a world of difference between technical writing and creative writing. In the coming blogs I want to deal with how editing fiction is different from other writing, the grammar rules you can break to write creatively, and some of the editing tools that helped me.

The writing process

untitled-design.pngIt is almost eight years since I started writing novels, and I’ve learned an awful lot in that time. It hasn’t been easy. I had a story I wanted to write and I wanted to start writing it as soon as possible. But I soon found out that you need to make some key decisions before you even start to write about point of view, person, and tense. And you need to have an understanding of story structure. So I did what I suspect many other writers have done. I read a whole host of ‘How too…” books on the subject. Many of which were helpful, and some of which lets say were a waste of time.

Remember that stereotype writer we often see portrayed in movies. The guy (or girl) with glasses who sits in front on a typewriter and bashes so many thousand words each day. Or who, stares at a blank page, swills whisky and suffers from writer’s block. This stereotype is often reinforced by successful writers, who say to be a writer you need to write every day as though this is the only process a writer needs:

“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down a typewriter and bleed.” ― Hemingway.
“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” ―
Stephen King
“You must write every single day of your life… You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads… may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world.” ―
Ray Bradbury

It’s true that if you want to be a writer you need to write and you need a determination to see it through. Writing a book is like running a marathon you can’t give up when you hit the wall. You have to keep going or you’ll never reach the end. But writing is not just about bashing words into a keyboard. There’s a creative process by which a simple initial idea is grown into a complex narrative we call a story.

Unfortunately, analysing a writer’s published work does not necessarily give a great deal of insight into the process the writer used to get to that final point. We may well identify the key turning points in the story but this does not tell us how he/she found them or developed them.

To add to the confusion some writers claim to be ‘pantsers’ doing very little preparation work for their stories, while others are ‘outliners’ using detailed outlining techniques. Although I suspect most writers are engaged in some level of planning and analysis even if it is only in their heads developing the main character and his goals.

The point I would like to make is that you don’t have to write a story sequentially starting on page 1 and finishing with “the end”. It’s a daunting task to carry that level of detail in your head. Some pantsers might say they don’t have to know the story at the outset as they just follow the main character until they get to the end. Maybe that works for them, but not for me.

The approach I take is a layering approach, which starts with the basic elements of story and gradually expands to a basic draft and then grows into a final draft in an iterative process.

Stage 1: Brainstorming ideas.

A story has to start somewhere with an initial idea. The purpose of brainstorming is to create as many ideas as possible without making judgement. Usually the idea will come from one of the five main story elements:

  1. A character
  2. A challenge:  a problem or opportunity or unusual situation that will drive the story
  3. An antagonist
  4. A storyworld 
  5. An ending

Stage 2: Developing the story premise, the broad story line, and identifying the main characters.

A story idea can be turned into a story premise by bringing together the story elements into a single statement explaining who the story is about, what he or she wants, what stands in their way of getting it, and why the want it. In simple terms, the premise is a statement about the hero’s big story challenge.

The story line or main plot line is broadly what happens to the hero. Does he/she succeed or fail and what are the main sequences that get him/her there.

At this point we need to understand the main characters, their role in the story and their primary motivation.

Stage 3: Developing a beat sheet for the main story line

The Beat Sheet lists the main stepping-stones in the hero’s storyline. It will usually include the main turning points and key hero sequences of the story.

The main turning points would be at least:

  1. The catalyst/inciting incident – What starts off the story conflict and motivates the hero to eventually act
  2. Act One Break – The point where the hero commences his quest or challenge
  3. The Mid Point – Usually a major revelation or reversal
  4. The Act 2 Culmination – Usually the darkest hour for the hero
  5. The  Climax

And the key sequences are hero’s quest broken down into 6-8 logical stages.

Stage 4: The Main Scene list or outline

The scene list or outline is a bullet list of scenes that can be easily identified from a the beat sheet. (It is not the final list which may be much longer). It is usually at this stage that I set up scene cards using Scrivener, breaking the list of scenes down under four headings:

  1. Act 1
  2. Act 2A
  3. Act 2B
  4. Act 3

The scenes themselves may well have one or two lines of text explanation. I may well add further notes where they occur to me. (Other writers may well want to turn this scene list into a more detailed outline with bullet points within each scene. I find it more effective to add detail at the time I am working on individual scenes rather than laying out all the scenes in detail in advance of the first Basic Draft.)

Stage 5: First Basic Story Draft

My first drafts are usually just the bare minimum to get the basic story down on paper. The word count will be substantially shorter than the eventual final draft 40-60%.

Stage 6: The Expanded Draft

This is the stage where I organise my scenes into chapters and where I add the missing scenes to the text. These could be sub plots, the story lines of other characters (eg the antagonist), or transitions. It is also where I take a further look a dialogue and descriptions and layers of further story content. This is an iterative process that continues until I reach the final draft

Stage 7: The Final Daft

My final drafts are usually complete except for proofing. I tend to edit as I go, so the final edits other that proofing are usually limited.

Looking back at what I have described above may give the impression that my writing process is planned and logical. It never feels quite like that in practice. New ideas can enter the process at any of the stages forcing a re-think, and they often do.

So there it is — my take on the story writing process. What do you think? Maybe you have something better to offer?

Mythic Metaphors

HJ.jpgRecently, I finished the first draft of my third book. It takes time to distance yourself from a manuscript before you can objectively edit it, so I picked up a project that had been working on for some time. The idea behind the project is to create a high-level story blueprint to see if a story idea or concept is worth taking further.  The blueprint brings together some of the ideas of my favourite movie industry gurus, such as Michael Hauge, Syd Field, Blake Snyder, Chris Soth and Paul Gulino into one simple document.

While working on the project I wondered how I might also incorporate some of the ideas of Christopher Vogler. I had researched Vogler’s writings and presentations on the internet and thought I understood the hero’s journey. But there is nothing quite like reading the original material first hand; so I bought ‘The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers’. I’m so pleased I did.

‘The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers’ draws on the psychology of Carl G Jung and the studies of Joseph Campbell to set out the hero’s journey under the mythic story structure. The journey can be shown in twelve stages as shown below:


If you don’t write fantasy adventures like Tolkien or Homer you might be inclined to dismiss this approach. Don’t. Aspects of the hero’s journey permeate all stories and all genres and any writer may find these ideas useful. Vogler himself uses it to analyse movies such Titanic, The Lion King, Pulp Fiction, The Full Monty and Star Wars. The Hero’s Journey is really a model full of mythical metaphors that can be used to describe any stories that take the hero into a strange new world. It doesn’t have to be a fantasy world. For example, the worlds of business, finance or law; the fashion world; the world of politics; or for that matter the world of love.

Vogler’s structure is a quest structure in twelve stages. For simplicity, I will refer to the hero as ‘he’ but of course it would be just as relevant to use a female hero. Our hero is called to an adventure, where he crosses into a strange new world where he will be tested many times. He approaches a dangerous inner cave where he will be tested again in a life-threatening ordeal, before claiming his prize and taking the road home. But before he can return with his prize he must pass one final test (the climax) where he faces death (of his old self) and (symbolic) resurrection. Thus the hero emerges a new man that has learned what it means to be a hero. The hero’s journey is thus a journey of transformation as much as the physical journey, the transition occurring in the same twelve steps.

Vogler noted that the steps may not necessarily occur in the order stated, nor do all the steps necessarily apply to all stories. The terms such as death and resurrection, the ordeal and the reward are metaphors that can be used to describe any kind of story. Similarly the mythic archetypes such as the Shape Shifter, the Mentor, Threshold Guardians and more provide a rich vocabulary for describing all types of modern day characters.

The point Vogler makes is that the Hero’s journey is not a story by numbers approach, but something much more flexible. There are mythic elements present in all stories. That’s why stories are so appealing to the human spirit.


Dialogue – the seven rules

dialogueI’ve been writing for most of my life. It was hard not to. It was part of my job as an accountant to write reports, letters and other forms of communication. So learning to write fiction shouldn’t have been that difficult, should it?

But of course it was. Business writing is about communicating facts and opinions. It’s the part that appeals to the logical side of our brains. Writing fiction is quite different. It is a creative process — painting with words and engaging the emotions of the reader. I had a lot learn!

One of the most obvious differences was dialogue. Dialogue reflects the emotions of thoughts of our characters and helps the writer bond with the reader. There are some basic points of the structure that I had to learn. That part was easy. But mastering the skill of writing good dialogue is more difficult. (And I’m still learning.)

First the easy part: the dialogue conventions and techniques.

Rule 1 : Each change of speaker should be a new paragraph. That way it is easy to understand when someone else is speaking.

Rule 2: Dialogue tags should be limited to a bare minimum to understand who is speaking. By tag, I mean ‘John said’,  ‘he  said’, or ‘she said’ etc. If it is obvious who’s speaking, no tag is necessary.

Rule 3; Avoid emotive tags, such “I’ll kill you,” he threatened. It’s pretty obvious that the speaker is threatening and it adds nothing. Similarly avoid the use of adverbs in tags such as ‘he said cynically’. Again the cynicism should be obvious from the text. In practice, ‘said’ is probably the easiest tag to use as it is relatively invisible to the reader.

Rule 4: Where there is an ‘action beat’ before the dialogue, the speaker is presumed to be the same. For example: John turned towards Mary. “Get out of my sight.”  Here it is presumed that John is the speaker and so no tag is necessary.

Rule 5: Don’t use dialogue as an information dump to inform the reader. For example: “As you know, John. We’ve both suspect the butler is the killer.”  This type of information dump just sounds awful.

Rule 6: Don’t mimic small talk about the weather, their health or anything else that isn’t relevant to the story line. Dialogue should appear natural, but shouldn’t mimic all the distracting features of natural speech.

Rule 7: Dialogue is a form of action. There should be elements of tension and sub text in the exchanges. Not answering questions, or answering a question with another question can raise interest in the readers mind as to why the speaker is being evasive.

Those are probably the basic rules you need to understand, but it is only the start. There is a real skill is crafting good dialogue. I tend to write my dialogue quickly by listening to the characters in my head. (Yes I hear voices). Then edit, edit and edit again. My own experience is that I tend to edit dialogue more than any other part of my writing. It’s only when it feels natural and real that I am satisfied.

Holding back the backstory

To make your characters come to life, you need to understand their lives before your story begins. Part of fun in writing is getting to know your characters. One of the ways is to prepare character sketches of the main characters. This should be more than just a a visual description of the height, weight, build and hair and eye colour, but should cover psychological elements such as their desires and pattern of thinking, as well as their weaknesses and quirks. Some writers suggest going even further: building their family history, their schooling and career development. I’m not sure I would necessarily agree with going that far; I tend to keep my character sketches relatively brief. However, life events that have moulded the character into who they are today are clearly important. Another way to discover your characters that has been suggested is to conduct an interview with your character to see what they have to say about themselves and what they believe in. (All good writers are good at talking to themselves!) Alternatively, some writers may prefer a more organic way of getting to know their characters through the process of preparing the first draft. They may well not be fully formed at the commencement of the story, but they will by the end. Whatever, method you use your character has a backstory and it will affect how they behave.

However, while a character’s backstory is important to the writer, it is of less concern to the reader. That’s why it’s called backstory: it happened before the story begins. A new writer, having done all the hard work of researching a character’s backstory, should resist the temptation to simply dump the backstory on the reader at the first opportunity. Donald Maass in “Writing the breakout novel workbook” suggests finding any scene in the first fifty pages which brings players to the stage, sets up the situation, or is otherwise backstory and cut and paste the material into chapter fifteen. Then to review the material in chapter fifteen to see if it cannot be cut outright, or if not to find the best place after the mid point of the novel. Strong advice. But those first fifty pages are so important they shouldn’t be burdened with an information dump. Information about the character’s history that is vital to the plot can be drip fed into the story. Sometimes holding back information can even be helpful in raising interest in the reader’s mind why is behaving that way?

So, backstory is important; but not so important that it has to be revealed to the reader, at the earliest opportunity.

Bad guys aren’t necessarily all bad

Unless you’re dealing with satanic supernatural characters, an easy mistake for new authors to make is to assume that the antagonist has to be the epitome of all evil. In practice, the bad guy may well think he’s his own hero. He just sees things differently from the good guy. Like the hero, he has a back-story that explains why he is what he is; and a goal – which usually brings him into direct conflict with the hero/heroine. The goal might be to:

• feel love, or be respected.
• control, or rule others around him.
• become wealthy.
• possess something, or someone
• satisfy his lust, or desire.
• extract revenge.
• satisfy some deep religious, or political conviction.

Some of these motives are not necessarily all bad. But, unlike the good guy, the bad guy may be prepared to go to extreme lengths to achieve their goal – well beyond the boundaries of the law, or acceptable behaviour. The point I am making is that once you understand the goals of the antagonist, his behaviour is quite logical. In the antagonist’s mind his behaviour is justified. They think it’s his victim’s fault for being weak, or for getting in his way, or failing him, or being different. Some antagonists may justify their behaviour by labelling their intended victims as being less than human: they are communists, or fascists, or some racial or religious group that doesn’t meet their standards. And this is seen as a reason to persecute, or destroy them.

This isn’t to say that the antagonist cannot have some redeeming qualities. Even Norman Bates (“Psycho”) loved his mother. And have you noticed that some of the Bond villains have pets; they may want world domination, but they love their pets. Some of the most despotic leaders from history may well have been family men at home, only to be monsters to others.

To fully understand the antagonist role in the story, his story needs to be told. He shouldn’t just turn up in the final scene to be destroyed by the hero. A good example is Anakin Skywalker’s path to the dark side in Star Wars Episode II and III. There are early hints in the movie where Anakin is talking to Pademe about the need for strong leadership that betray his political leaning. But it all starts when Anakin tries to rescue his mother from the Tuscan Raiders. When he gets to the campsite, he finds that the Tusken Raiders have tortured his mother to death. In revenge, he slaughters everyone at the campsite, including the women and children. He later confesses his actions to Pademe. Later, in episode III Palpatine places Anakin on the Jedi counsel, but the Council deny him the rank of Jedi Master. This makes him resentful of his Jedi masters. Then when Pademe becomes pregnant, Anakin has premonitions of Padme dying in child birth. Palpatine convinces him that the only way to save her is to turn to the dark side. Anakin becomes Palpatine’s apprentice, and is re-christened Darth Vader. After which he kills the Jedi children in the temple and his path to the dark side is complete.

It isn’t just movies that detail the antagonist’s story. Dan Brown is one of the experts at giving his evil antagonists a story of their own. Take Silas, the albino religious killer, from the Da Vinci Code. In Chapter ten, Silas experiences a flashback of his father beating his mother to death when he was seven. Silas blames himself for letting this happen, and stabs his drunken father repeatedly until dead. The boy flees to live in the basement of a dilapidated factory eating stolen food. When he was twelve a girl twice his age mocks him and he pummelled her within inches of her life. At eighteen he is caught by two crewmen steeling food. He kills one, and is caught by the police before he kills the other. He is sent to a prison in Andora. Twelve years later an earthquake destroys the prison and he escapes in a railcar. He is found beaten again and wanders to be taken in by a priest. He saves the priest from a thief’s beating. The priest names him Silas. From then on he sees his religious calling and will help the priest build his church and do his every bidding.

So what can we learn from the Dan Brown? If you’re going to have dangerous psychotic religious zealot, like Silas, you need to explain why they are like that. Silas first appears in the fourth paragraph of the prologue killing the curator of the Louvre. But this is not the place to explain Silas’s character. There is too much going on. We see him again in Chapter two phoning the ‘Teacher’ and telling him that he has killed four people; and later he is seen inflicting pain on himself as a religious cleansing ritual. We now know that he is a religious psychotic killer. But it is only in chapter ten that we learn about his background.

In between these chapters there is of the course the story of Robert Langdon, the protagonist, who is brought to the Louvre by Captain Fache and suspected of being the murderer of the curator. By the end of chapter 18, Langdon and Sophie (the grand-daughter of the dead curator) have escaped from Fache and are on the run. The protagonist story and the antagonist’s story have been brilliantly sandwiched together in the first 124 pages. Can anyone put the book down at this point? The Da Vinci code is also a great example of what an author needs to do in the first Act: introduce the characters, and set the story question of what the story is all about.

If your novels are going to have evil antagonists, then it’s important that you understand the antagonist’s back-story. How he/she became what they are today and what is driving them. You also need to think carefully about how the antagonist’s backstory will be revealed, and when it is best to reveal it. In the case of the Da Vinci code, it was the ‘stone towers of the Saint-Sulpice’ that triggered the memories of him in prison and how he got there. There is quite an art to doing flashback scenes and the best way to find out is to follow great fiction writers.

Not all stories have a human antagonist; but those that do need to develop the antagonist’s character and provide a glimpse of why he is what he is.

How many types of plots are there?

tableAccording to Christopher Booker’s ‘The Seven Basic Plots’ most stories can be categories under one of seven basic structures. For example, Jaws, Alien and Beowulf would all  fall under the ‘Overcoming the Monster’ category. ‘Lord of the Rings’ and ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ fall under the ‘Quest’ category.

Booker is not the only one to look at story structure. Ronald Tobias analyses stories by using twenty Master Plots. Some of these overlap with the seven basic plots. In the diagram I have tried to align them under the different categories although they do not necessarily easily fit. For example, Tobias examples of ‘Pursuit’ include ‘Jaws’, ‘Alien’, (which is close to the ‘Monster in the House’ category)  but also ‘Narrow Margin’, ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ and ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’. Tobias is more detailed than Booker and looks more to the motivational aspects of the story.

Blake Snyder in ‘Save the Cat’ also categorises movies according to ten different types.  His ‘Golden Fleece’ category includes ‘Star Wars’, ‘Back to the Future’ and most heist movies. The ‘Dude with a problem’ category includes ordinary people with a problem: ‘Die Hard’, ‘Titanic’ and ‘Schinder’s List’. The ‘Superhero’ category includes exceptional people with a problem: ‘Gladiator’, ‘Frankenstein’, ‘Dracula’, ‘Superman’ etc. ‘Buddy Love’ includes ‘Rain Man’, ‘Dumb and Dumber’ as well as every love story ever made. ‘Institutionalised’ is about groups: ‘MASH’, ‘The Godfather’. The ‘Fool Triumphant’ includes ‘Dave’, ‘Forrest Gump’, ‘The Pink Panther’. Whydunnit’  includes ‘China Syndrome’, ‘All the President’s Men’ to every detective story ever told. ‘Out of the bottle’ includes ‘Bruce Almighty’, ‘Freaky Friday’, and ‘The Love Bug’.

Of the three authors classification systems I tend to prefer Blake Snyder’s approach. It’s less detailed than the twenty plots of Ronald Tobias, but is in my view more intuitive. The only aspect that does not seem to fit easily into the structure are tragedies. But then again tragedies are not particularly popular at the box office.

Why is story structure important? If we can understand why certain story structures work and others don’t we can analyse our own work to see if they contain the same pattern (or beats). The trick is to use the same winning pattern, but to be somehow different.

Making the main character likeable

All great books and movies seem to have a great lead character that the reader or audience can identify with and root for. How do authors and screenwriters do it? Think about the books and movies you love. What aspects of the lead character’s character did you like, and what attracted you to them? Were they:

• Courageous / heroic
• Feisty/adventurous/ambitious
• Steadfast/resolute/tenacious
• Unpretentious/modest
• Selfless/Caring
• Humorous

Probably not all these at once; or at least not when you first met them at the start of the story. No one is perfect, and perfect lead characters are, well, frankly boring. Usually at the start of a good story the character has some flaw that they will need to overcome to fulfil themselves, and reach the story goal. The hero might be reckless, or arrogant, or juvenile; the heroine might be self-centred, weak or easily led. They need to learn what’s important during the course of the story. This is character arc: the change a character goes through in the course of the story. Think of Hans Solo the arrogant space pirate that only thinks of himself. Except of course at the end where he comes to the aid of Luke Skywalker. Think of Luke Skywalker and his development from a farm boy to Jedi knight.

In some cases, we may only see the lead character’s true self when he/she is finally put to the test during the later stages of the story. There may well be glimpses of the true character during the course of the story; but it is only in the final test do we discover who they really are.

Not all main characters necessarily change. James Bond, John McClane, Jack Reacher, Harry Potter, Robert Langdon are all pretty much the same character from story to story. Serial stories may therefore be the exception as the story has to continue beyond the current storyline.

In other cases, it might not be the lead character that changes; but someone else close to the character. In “Back to the Future” (one of my all-time favourite movies), it is Marty’s father that changes. There are therefore no rules about character arc.

In my previous blog, I wrote about how character and plot are interwoven. Character is revealed by the actions the lead character makes. Blake Snyder, in ‘Save the Cat’, talks about the importance of the ‘save the cat’ scene. He says it’s a scene at the beginning of the movie where the hero does something small – like saving a cat – that defines who he is and makes the audience like him. Snyder says this scene is less common in movies these days. He quotes the example of Lara Croft 2, which in spite of a big budget didn’t resonate at the box office. His explanation was that the Lara Croft character, although ‘cool’, was ‘cold and humourless’. What she needed to do was something kind – a ‘save the cat’ scene.

Perhaps a good example of actually ‘saving the cat’ is the scene from Alien, where Ripley goes back to save the ship’s cat. Although the scene is at the end of the movie it has a similar effect. Ripley has a heart after all. In Aliens 2, she goes on better trying to save a little girl.

Other more dramatic examples might be Katniss’s action to volunteer for the Hunger Games to save her younger sister. (That pretty much trumps saving a mere moggy).
Heros and heroines are not defined by how they look or what they say. They are defined by the heroic actions they carry out. Some of these actions might be quite small at the start of the story, but they give us a glimpse of what is to come.

What makes a good story ending?

Having covered story beginnings and middles in previous blogs, it seems only natural to cover story endings. Whether a story ending is right or not can ultimately only be judged by the reader. If the ending is not consistent with the direction the story is taking the reader, they may well feel disappointed and let down. After all, the reader has invested his time, and emotional energy in the characters of the story.

So what makes a story ending consistent with the direction of the story? Ultimately it depends on the type of story and the expectation it generates about the ending. That isn’t to say the author can’t surprise the reader with an ending (a twist); but the twist ending should be consistent with the type of ending the reader expects.

In Christopher Booker’s ‘The Seven Basic Plots’, Booker discusses a ‘universal plot’ in which the conflict in any story revolves around a component of human nature symbolised by a ‘dark power’. How the hero/heroine responds to the ‘dark power’ determines the outcome of the story.  In the beginning of the story a hero or heroine is in some way undeveloped, frustrated or incomplete. In the middle of the story they fall under the shadow of some ‘dark power’. The ending depends on whether the hero learns to overcome his weakness, defeat the ‘dark power’ and reach his goal (positive ending); or whether he fails to change and ends in his own destruction (negative ending). Thus the universal plot is based on moral sense of justice.

The universal plot is easy to identify in many of the tragedies of Shakespeare: Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth. These were basically noble men whose tragic flaws led to their own destruction. Tragedies are less popular today, as Hollywood seems to have a preference for positive endings. In the positive ending, the hero overcomes his weaknesses, defeats the antagonist and achieves his goal, even if the rest of the cast die in the process (e.g. Alien).

In a recent Blog on Goodreads, many of the participants complained about Hollywood’s preference for ‘happy endings’ in many Sci Fi movies. The consensus seemed to be that Hollywod didn’t understand ‘real’ science fiction. Some eulogised over some of the more depressing endings provided by some dystopian Sci Fi literature. I can’t say I’ve read a lot of this type of  science fiction. But I think the role of science fiction is to entertain the reader and not to prophesy. China Mieville would seem to agree:

“I think the role of science fiction is not at all to prophesy. I think it is to tell interesting, vivid, strange stories that at their best are dreamlike intense versions and visions of today.”

Those movies that I have seen with depressing endings I have found disappointing. Most tanked at the box office (at least Hollywood understands money). Personally, I want to see endings that show the triumph of the human spirit over adversity. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the ending has to be ‘happy’. It may well be sad if that’s what fits the storyline.

For example, in Space Cowboys (2000) Corvin and Hawkins discover that the Soviet Communications satellite that is about to come out of orbit has six nuclear missiles onboard. To stop the missiles re-entering the rockets have to be fired manually. Hawkins fires the rockets and takes them to the moon. He saves the world and achieves his wish of going to the moon, only to die on the moon’s surface. Not exactly a ‘happy ending’, but a sad one, and the right one for the movie.

An author has to have a good beginning, a good middle and a good end to his story to satisfy his reader. A bad opening and the reader will not pick the book up. A bad middle and the reader will put the book down in the middle. A bad ending and he/she probably won’t look at a book from the same author again.