How To Write A Story

How to Write A Story

The title says it all. How many times do I see that question in Facebook groups and writing forums? 

Well, this tutorial will set out the process in easy to follow steps. It doesn’t matter if you are writing a very short essay of just 250 words or a fantasy epic of 250,000 words. The process is the same. A story has a beginning, a middle and an end. How you build that out is up to you as the writer of that story.

Make no mistake. That makes you a Writer. 

You often hear people declaring “I’m a Pantser” or “I’m a Planner” when referring to their writing methods. Well, there isn’t a lot of difference. Everyone plans their story by some method. You simply can’t write a story by recording a stream of words that pop into your mind as you think about it. Even a declared Pantser has to do some planning. Why declare yourself as a Pantser? Well, it does have a certain dramatic ring to it. Someone not tied to convention. Someone free of the shackles of convention. Well, that’s all very well, but these are often the same people you see back on the forum a few months later seeking help to get past so-called writer’s block. But in the end, it doesn’t matter where you think your position is. To write a coherent story you have to have some form of planning in play.

If you want to make writing your full-time day job, then speed and accuracy require you to plan.

So let’s get you started on outlining your story process.

1. Every story has a core. A story core if you like. Every good story has this identifiable core. Here’s what makes up that core.

  1. A protagonist
  2. Their goal
  3. The Antagonist
  4. The struggle
  5. Success or failure

I will enlarge on these 5 items later, but regardless of how they are described, these five points form the core of any good story. Whatever the genre. It doesn’t matter.

This is what makes a story compelling. If you find yourself wanting to keep reading then this story core is at work. It’s what makes a book “unputdownable”.

Sometimes the core may be a little vague and you find yourself slowing down. Even stopping reading. Some stories have no core and you abandon the book because you can sense that it’s not going anywhere.

So outlining your story becomes easy. It becomes a necessity. You outline your story so you know what’s happening from beginning to end. Then you fill out the story with your words.

So there is a right way to outline your story. One that allows you plenty of creative freedom even though you may be following the story map of your outline. This is not to say that you follow a rigid structure. You are allowing your outline to guide you and maintain your creative flow.

Your core is guiding you.

2. Built around your core template is your core outline. It contains three parts all of equal importance. 

  1. Character Arc
  2. Theme
  3. Pacing
  1. A character arc is a transformation or inner journey of a character over the course of a story. If a story has a character arc, the character begins as one sort of person and gradually transforms into a different sort of person in response to changing developments in the story.
  2. A story theme is the central topic of the story. It’s what you the author are trying to convey. In other words, the central idea of the story. It is distinguishable from the premise. 
  3. The pacing refers to the speed at which a story is told. Not necessarily the speed at which the story takes place. The pace is determined by the length of the scenes, how fast the action moves, and how quickly the reader is provided with information.

We don’t need to outline the Plot. Let that evolve for the reader as your story develops. If you write your Outline using only the plot as your guide, you will lose the story. You can change the plot even as your story develops. So what you think it may be at the start, it may end something entirely different when you come to revise your work. We will look at Plot of course, but I don’t want you to focus on the plot.

I want to show you how the three components I have just listed in list 2 relate to the first five outline parts in list 1.

The order that things are listed is important, but not exclusively. In other words, Pace is just as important as a Character. If you want to put Plot in that list, put it above number 3. Why? Because the Plot can shift around and change.

Your story is not about the Plot. It’s about Character.

Simply put, your story is the Character Arc. It’s the story of your protagonist’s journey from their emotional state at the beginning of the story, to their emotional state at the end of the story.

That’s why the Character Arc is the centre. The character struggles to overcome the emotional state they find themselves in at the beginning of the story. This emotional state doesn’t mean your character has to be in need of psychological help, it just means you transition your character from one state, even one they may be comfortable in, to another better state that they have realized is their goal.

So you see it doesn’t matter how violent the action, how many bodies pile up, how many superheroes join the band, if your reader isn’t emotionally invested in your central character, the story falls flat. No matter what the plot. For me, a perfect example is Lord of the Rings. Great story, but Frodo the shoeless idiot just really makes me want to run screaming from the theatre. There is no Arc for Frodo. He starts out stupid and stays stupid throughout the full two hours. But that’s just my opinion.

So to hook your reader, to get them interested in your character you can start your character off with room for improvement. They don’t have to be physically challenged, super good looking or anything drastic, just needing improvement in some way. They can be really flawed in some life-threatening way or big and scared or devoid of emotion. Don’t make them cute, or hopeless, or stupid… see Frodo.

In other words, your character arc takes your protagonist from their story entry state to a better state by the story end. It may not be perfect, but it’s better.

Starting your story with your character having a very serious need to change their mind and heart sets the hook for your readers. It invests your readers.

Make the flaw serious. It plants the idea that here’s a person who has the potential to improve. To become A Hero. Your reader begins to care about your character right from the beginning. They won’t put the book down because they want to see what happens to the character.

This allows you to narrow down your story so that it provides a logical framework for the protagonist to follow on their journey fro A to B. Success or failure doesn’t matter.

The ”flaw” informs the story’s inciting event, the antagonist, the ally and the false starts.

Before you even start, think about all the flaws that real people have. The choice is endless, but the one you pick for your character has to be a big one. Not just having big teeth or being stupid.

Physical deformities or birth defects can’t be used. The character can’t grow out of them.

A fear of heights? Green-eyed envy of everyone and everything? You get the idea.

Well, now that you know your characters major flaw, you can begin your outline. You can do this in a decent-sized notebook or a new document on your computer or iPad. Maybe even in Scrivener – which I recommend by the way.

What you write now will be of use on many stories, not just your first one.

Write down your characters name. Like this.( I’ll use examples from a book of mine)

  1. Main Character. Antonio Rukal. A farm boy in the district surrounding his village.
  2. Blank
  3. Blank
  4. Blank
  5. End of story: The characters flaw is overcome.

Flaw: (Your characters flaw). A stubborn country innocent with no real view of his future as no skill at decision making.

Now you know where you need to end up by the close of your story. How? Take a look at what your character will be like when you get to the end of the story. Remember? The Story is always about your protagonists journey from A to B. The trials and tribulations along the way and their gradual growth into the person you want them to be.

Line 5 is where this is detailed. This is where your story plot winds up, success or failure. Success or not in the external goal. The plot. You may not know this yet. But you do know the character’s flaw, and it’s in the success or failure of the goal that the character’s flaw is overcome.

Line 2 is all about the external goal that is plot centred and taking your character along their arc. Somewhere along this arc the character finally recognizes their flaw. It’s a confrontation from which your character may or may not emerge.

So this takes us to Line 2. Line 2 is the external goal. In my example, the external goal is to keep the Dark Lord confined in his mountain prison.

 Your list now looks like this.

  1. Main Character. Antonio Rukal. A farm boy in the district surrounding his village.
  2. External goal. Keep the Dark Lord confined
  3. Blank
  4. Blank
  5. End of story: The characters flaw is overcome.

Flaw: (Your characters flaw). A stubborn country innocent with no real view of his future as no skill at decision making.

The pages to come show you how to develop your understanding of who your protagonist is and how serious their flaw is and in the process show how your protagonist goes about pursuing the external goal.

Let’s take a look now at the Cores 

Line 3. The antagonist.

Don’t think of the antagonist as always the nasty villain of the story. The antagonist is after the same goal as the protagonist, only from the opposite point of view. It is this opposition that drives the protagonist forward on their journey and makes them the person they become.

In my story example, the Dark Lord is the antagonist, trying to get free of his prison by controlling events that the main character faces.

This has the effect of slowly changing the main character. Slowly moving from A to B.

So your outline now looks like this.

  1. Main Character. Antonio Rukal. A farm boy in the district surrounding his village.
  2. External goal. Keep the Dark Lord confined
  3. Antagonist: Trying to get free of his prison by controlling events that the main character faces.
  4. Blank
  5. End of story: The characters flaw is overcome.

Flaw: (Your characters flaw). A stubborn country innocent with no real view of his future as no skill at decision making.

Don’t forget your characters ally. How many stories have you read where the main character has no close ally? Very few. Pay close attention to your protagonist’s ally, they are often central to guiding your character on their journey. In my story example, Catharina is the lifelong close friend of Antonin but is a warrior and doesn’t have the same drifting attitude to life that he starts with. Her strength is what he will need as the story unfolds. So add this to your Core List.

Ally: Catharina, warrior maiden of the guardian clan, and intended mate of Antonin.

Put this line after Flaw. It goes after the Flaw line, so you will see that the Ally directly affects the Flaw of the protagonist.

Lastly in this stack is Theme. You should put this here to remind yourself what your story conveys. In my case, Awakening: The Dragons of Sara Sara the theme is Good triumphs over evil.

Before we get to Line 4. I haven’t forgotten it, no. Our Outline Stack now looks like this.

  1. Main Character. A farm boy in the district surrounding his village.
  2. External goal. Keep the Dark Lord confined
  3. Antagonist: Trying to get free of his prison by controlling events that the main character faces.
  4. Blank
  5. End of story: The characters flaw is overcome.

Flaw: (Your characters flaw). A stubborn country innocent with no real view of his future and no skill at decision making.

Ally: Catharina, warrior maiden of the guardian clan, and intended mate of Antonin:

Theme: Good triumphs over evil.

Line 4 is the meat of your story. This is where you develop your plot. This is also where you can make the most use of a Template you may have. So Line 4 is the struggle. This is where your character develops. This is where I can confidently put the Template for you.

The template is made up of the following 7 key elements. 

Story Beginning

  1. Phase #1. The Preparation Phase
  2. Game Changer #1
  3. Phase #2. Reactive Phase
  4. Game Changer #2
  5. Phase #3. Proactive Phase
  6. Game Changer #3
  7. Phase #4. Conclusion Phase

Story Ending

Rather than give you a long-winded explanation of those steps, let me give you a very simple example of plot development in Line 4. Struggle section of the outline list.

  1. The protagonist opens the story with a description and introduction of the main character and their surroundings. This is a very important step.
  2. Something changed in their life, for good or bad is up to you, it’s your story. You can introduce the Ally here or a little further back in the preparation phase.
  3. The protagonist – your character – reacts to the change. They convince themselves they can’t do anything about it maybe? Fight or flight. Maybe flight is best?
  4. A sudden dramatic change happens. They can’t ignore it. They are directly affected.
  5. They have to do something about it. Overcoming their flaw, they decide to act.
  6. There is another change in the situation, good or bad depends on you.
  7. The goal is achieved, the protagonist is a new person (or not) Success or Failure.

So what does it all look like now?

  1. Main Character. Antonin Rukal. A farm boy in the district surrounding his village.
  2. External goal. Keep the Dark Lord confined
  3. Antagonist: Trying to get free of his prison by controlling events that the main character faces.
  4. The Struggle: 
  1. The protagonist opens the story with a description and introduction of the main character and their surroundings. This is a very important step.
  2. Something changed in their life, for good or bad is up to you, it’s your story. You can introduce the Ally here or a little further back in the preparation phase.
  3. The protagonist – your character – reacts to the change. They convince themselves they can’t do anything about it maybe? Fight or flight. Maybe flight is best?
  4. A sudden dramatic change happens. They can’t ignore it. They are directly affected.
  5. They have to do something about it. Overcoming their flaw, they decide to act.
  6. There is another change in the situation, good or bad depends on you.
  7. The goal is achieved, the protagonist is a new person (or not) Success or Failure.
  8. End of story: The characters flaw is overcome.

Flaw: (Your characters flaw). A stubborn country innocent with no real view of his future and no skill at decision making.

Ally: Catharina, warrior maiden of the guardian clan, and intended mate of Antonin:

Theme: Good triumphs over evil.

Based on your Core starting point.

  1. A protagonist
  2. Their goal
  3. The Antagonist
  4. The struggle
  5. Success or failure

6 thoughts on “How To Write A Story”

  1. Hey Robert saw your well presented tutorial on writing a novel. So well written and easy to read! I may never use a lot of the good stuff scrivener offers because I do everything backwards first. 😁 

    I’ve studied a lot and learned a bit about the criteria you talk about. But my way isn’t in alignment with the “right” way. Sometimes that worries me. I have my own style. I think it’s called breaking all the rules before you know what they are 😊. The heart of my story is a situation that affects a lot of people. My protagonist doesn’t appear for several chapters. (Broken rule 1. Other key characters are introduced along with the situation in the beginning. 

    I have a prologue that is important to the story. I’ve learned that is a no no too, so broken rule 2.

    My story is written in present tense third person. Broken rule 3. A HUGE no no I’ve since learned. I’m half way through my book going into part 2 five years later than part 1. Another 5 year leap and then another 10 years needs to happen before going to part 3. Time at part 3 is 10 years from time of prologue. whew!

    I know what I want to happen, but I’m challenged in going forward because I don’t want part 2 to be very long.

    I don’t expect you to direct me with these challenges, but wanted to comment that my path so far has been different and yet I think it carries some of the elements you describe. This is my first novel so learning as I go. Thank you for your unselfish sharing to help others.
    Ps Is this too long to post in the group?

    1. Thanks for the comments Dale. There is no right way or wrong way. What ever you feel you have to do to tell your story is the right way for you.
      My little tutorial isn’t to try and convince people of a right way or a wrong way, but rather a starting point for someone trying to figure out where to start or even what to do next.
      I’m glad you found it interesting.

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