A week ago, a friend of mine asked via Twitter: “Mrs. @mbweston, what’s your writing process?” To answer his question, I’ve been writing a series of blog posts about how I go about my personal writing process. So far, we’ve covered:
Before we delve into writing a story, we must understand how stories work. Bear in mind that my writing lectures about plot take me an hour. I’m only allowing myself around 1,000 words here, so I’m abbreviating.
A well-crafted story is like the human body. The human body has:
- A skeleton
- Muscles, organs, connective tissue, etc.
- Skin and hair
A story has:
- A plot, which is the skeletal structure of the story
- Characters and character development, which make up the story’s muscles and connective tissue
- Sensory details, great description, and vibrant settings, which make up your story’s skin and hair
When you look at a human body, you don’t see the muscles or the bones (unless you’re looking at a supermodel), but you know they are there. Now, imagine a human body without bones. I know, ick. It would be flopping around, kind of like Harry Potter’s arm in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.
A written work without a plot is just as effective as a body without a skeleton. It flops around all over the place, and no one really wants to look at it. (If people often drift off into La-la Land when you are telling them an exciting story about your day, you may want to pay attention…)
If you want people to actually read your story, it must have a plot. Please don’t think you can get all artsy and just create stream of consciousness mumbo jumbo. Well, you can create it all you want, but no one is going to buy it from you.
Fortunately, storytelling has been with us for centuries, and other people have already studied the art of plot and given us a basic formula. Yes, you heard me correctly. There is a formula for a plot. Yes, you have to follow it. Trust me on this. This formula wasn’t created by English professor or the publishing industry. It’s a formula created by storytellers, and it’s based on what a story needs in order to grab and keep an audience’s attention. Don’t worry. The formula is quite simple, and if you do your job right as an author, no one will see your formula because you will have covered it with muscles and flesh.
Here is the basic formula for a story. Please note that the times are guidelines. They don’t have to be exact unless you are writing a screenplay:
1. The Introduction (the first 1/4 of your story):
The first 1/4 of your story is your introduction. Here, you:
- Introduce your characters to the audience
- Give a little background
- Establish a few character traits that will cause your hero big problems later.
- Give the audience a hook: something that draws your reader into the story but isn’t your main conflict. An example of a great hook: When Dumbledore and Professor MacGonagal discuss Harry Potter while he is a baby. MacGonagal says, “Everyone in our world will know his name.” Dumbledore responds saying that’s why they need to let the muggles keep Harry. This is not the central plot of The Sorcerer’s Stone, but it is the hook. It grabs the audience’s attention.
2. The Inciting Incident aka Plot Point 1 (happens 1/4 of the way into your story):
The inciting incident is the point that gets the story going. Generally, it establishes your central conflict. It’s often an exciting part of the story, but sometimes it’s the part where the character makes a decision. Examples:
- Men in Black: Will Smith sits on a bench all night thinking and decides to join MIB.
- The Hobbit: Bilbo Baggins decides to go with the dwarves on the adventure.
- A Prophecy Forgotten (gotta put a shameless plug in there somewhere): Gabriella jumps off the cliff to save Tommy, which incites change in both our world and hers.
3. Rising Action (the next 1/2 of the story):
Rising action takes up most of your story. Note: it’s called “Rising Action” so the action and tension should rise. Your inciting incident got your story moving. Rising Action keeps it going and increases its speed. I could spend an hour on Rising Action, but I have to conserve words, so I will leave you with this. Rising Action is about conflict. It’s about tension. Nothing should go right for your protagonist. Make his or her life miserable. Trust me on this. Your audience will love you for it.
4. Plot Point 2 (3/4 of the way into your story)
Plot point 2 is not the climax. It’s the point that spins your story off into the climax. Through the rising action, your audience has been feeling gradually more tense. Plot Point 2 begins the climactic journey, and after Plot Point 2, tension should increase exponentially. Examples of a Plot Point 2:
- Saving Private Ryan: They decide to defend the bridge against the Germans.
- Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone: Harry and the gang decide to defend the sorcerer’s stone on their own, which requires stunning poor Neville.
- A Prophecy Forgotten: Davian returns to Heaven’s Realm and discovers that Azernoth has been assassinated.
Remember that initial central conflict we talked about back during the inciting incident? The climax is where it’s resolved. Someone wins: either the protagonist or that which he or she was fighting. Examples.
- The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe: Aslan kills the White Witch.
- Star Wars: A New Hope: The Death Star Explodes.
- A Prophecy Forgotten: Sorry, you have to read the book!
6. Falling Action
In falling action, you wrap up lose ends and sub-plots. Make it short and sweet. You had the audience at “Hello” so don’t keep them listening to your dribble.
Ooh, that’s 985 words! Just under 1,000! Now that you know the basic formula for a story, we’ll discuss what to do with it in tomorrow’s post.
Fantasy novelist M. B. Weston is the author of The Elysian Chronicles, a fantasy series about guardian angel warfare and treason. Weston speaks to children, teens, and adults about writing and the process of getting published. For more information on M. B. Weston, visit www.mbweston.com. Find out more about The Elysian Chronicles at www.elysianchronicles.com.