“We think of stories as a wildly creative art form but within that creativity and that diversity there is a lot of conformity. Stories are very predictable. No matter where you go in the world, no matter how different people seem, no matter how hard their lives are, people tell stories, universally, and universally the stories are more or less like ours: the same basic human obsessions, and the same basic structure. The structure comes down to: stories have a character, the character has a predicament or a problem—they’re always problem-focused—and the character tries to solve the problem. In its most basic terms, that’s what a story is—a problem solution narrative.”Jonathan Gottschall
The 7 Steps to the Perfect Story
From structure and plot to heroes and characters, your story must have 7 elements in order to engage the audience. Here’s an infographic from the Content Marketing Association that visually defines the process of storytelling:
Click the image below to view a larger version.
Source: Visual Portrait of a Story, adapted by Ohler, J. (2001) from Dillingham, B. (2001)
The real depth of any story is not whether the character achieves the goal but who they become as they face the obstacles along the path.
How to Develop a Story
From a writer’s perspective, a story has to first develop a character that we care about, and we wonder what will happen to them. Donald Miller, in his book A Million Miles in a Hundred Steps says that the character must “save the cat”. The character must do something charitable that shows there is a decent human inside. Rocky always does 3-4 charitable things in the first 20 minutes of each film that follows the boxer.
Step 1: “Save the Cat” – our main character does something that gets us to love him
Once we care, then something has to happen to force the character to show their hand. In real life, we don’t change unless we are changed by events. In the words of Soren Kierkegaard “the only precursor to change is crisis”.
So story step number 2: a crisis. Something that forces the character to commit to the goal. In Star Wars, Luke returns from the desert trip to find his aunt and uncle have been murdered by Imperial Stormtroopers. He commits to travel with Obi-wan to space.
Step 2: The Inciting Event – something external kicks our loveable character off of the sofa
We are now on the journey.
Joseph Campbell speaks of this moment as the Portal to Adventure. Often the character will have approached this portal a few times in the past, only to turn back at the last moment. Something happens to push them over the edge. It might be a mentor that says “things will be ok for you”. It might be a love interest who says “do it for me!” It might be a coincidence that the hero reads as divine message saying “it is you”.
The adventure begins. Often a few easy victories give the hero (and the readers) a sense that this is going to work out well.
In an interesting story, there are positive turns and negative turns. In Homer’s Odysseus, the hero makes amazing progress towards his home using the magic of the wind that the Gods gave to him in a bag. Joy. Progress. Then, the crew open the bag to see if they can get home even quicker. Opening the bag is a negative turn. The uncontrolled wind escapes from the bag and blows the ship way, way, way back far, far, far away from home, even further than from where they had begun.
The positive turns allow us to keep the reader engaged and hopeful of the final outcome.
The negative turns allow us to develop the character of the hero. Kurt Vonnegut says “Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.”
Step 3: Positive Turns, Negative Turns
The trials and tribulations, hopes and dashed dreams continue for a while. We are watching the hero gather resources, make friends, identify enemies, trust those that are not worthy of trust, disobey those that should really have been obeyed – make a mess out of easy situations, and just pull it together to make it through the difficult challenges.
Then, the novelty wears off and the hero realises that they don’t feel like they are making progress. I am reminded of the feeling when I sail between the coast and an island. When I set out from the shore of Australia to sail to the Whitsunday islands, at first the coast behind me got rapidly smaller – I felt like I was flying out to sea. Then comes the interminable middle. The coast is no longer shrinking, but the islands don’t seem to be getting any bigger. All I know is that wave after wave is hitting my boat. I stay in this state for hours. Then, all of a sudden, the islands rapidly grow larger and larger.
In the interminable middle, the hero must find a way to overcome self doubt as well as the many obstacles that block the path to the goal.
We then reach a point of disillusion. This is the point of abandon. The hero is tired, has lost sight of the original goal, feels like they are making no progress.
The hero wants to give up. It feels pointless to go on.
Again, in good story, we need an external cause that pushes the hero to one last push. It might be a friend that reappears and supports. It might be an evil enemy doing something that is double the despicable of anything he has done before. It might be the loss of the hero’s closest ally. It might be the death of the hero’s mentor (remember Obi-Wan sacrificing himself to Darth?).
The hero, this time without hope for themselves, having lost their own ego reason for taking up the original mission takes one last push – and this push is enough to break the deadlock of the interminable middle and open up the return home.
Step 4: Disillusionment and the Point of Abandon, The Final Push
The hero has achieved the original goal. Prometheus achieves stealing fire from the Gods and returns to the world. Luke and his allies blow up the Death Star with a last, final, spiritually enhanced missile (“just like shooting swamp rats back home!”).
The hero returns to his village, to those that knew him before his journey.
Sometimes the return is the most challenging. The hero has become a very different person though the obstacles they have overcome, but their mother and father, their brothers and sisters still see the old version of the person. It takes tremendous effort to get the old friends and family to see the new person and let go of the old person.
In a movie, we leave the cinema with a sense of closure, that a full cycle has finished. In a book we finish with a sense that the universe has been restored to a new point of equilibrium. In real life, we realise that this epic story is just a tiny sub-plot in a bigger and bigger story. In real life, the meaning is not designed into the events by an author, it is we ourselves who must create the meaning that can fit the events of our lives and give us the feeling that it is worth waking up again and experiencing more tomorrow.
Step 5: The Return
This then, is a story:
Hero + Goal + Obstacles + Resources + Friends + Enemies + Learning and Growing to become the person that can succeed
Kurt Vonnegut is an American writer (1922-2007) famous for his satire and humour in the face of desperate circumstances. He has a wonderful theory on “the shapes of stories” – which he presents in the 4 minute video available below.
Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
Start as close to the end as possible.
Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
The Shape of Story
Thanks to Alex Rister on her blog Creating Communication for originally sharing this video. If you click through to her blog, she also shares an infographic with a summary of Vonnegut’s shapes of story.
7 Rules for Writing with Style
As a further glimpse into the mind of Kurt Vonnegut and his views on writing, here are 7 rules for “writing with style”: