An Introduction to Basic Story Structure

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An Introduction to Basic Story Structure

by Peter Rubie.

My friend Gary Provost and I created what we teasingly called the Gary Provost Sentence (with some help from Aristotle). Here it is:

Once upon a time… something happened to someone, and he decided that he would pursue a goal. So he devised a plan of action, and even though there were forces trying to stop him, he moved forward because there was a lot at stake. And just as things seemed as bad as they could get, he learned an important lesson, and when offered the prize he had sought so strenuously he had to decide whether or not to take it, and in making that decision he satisfied a need that had been created by something in his past.

This is classic dramatic structure. It works because it’s story telling that is most satisfying to the reader. Aristotle defined good drama as storytelling that defined character, created atmosphere, and advanced the action of the plot. No one has ever really substantively improved on this beautifully simple yet profound definition, though I think Norman Mailer came close when he said in a TV interview, “The best fiction is where art, philosophy, and adventure all meet.”

Let’s go through Gary’s paragraph again. This time we’ll stop along the way and I’ll talk about the elements of plotting. Once you understand these elements whether you’re a literary novelist or a writer of non-fiction, or a genre writer you’ll be able to plot any story you like.

Once upon a time… something happened to someone…

This is what we call the inciting incident. In other words, it’s what caused the story to kick in. Say your story begins on Thursday. Don’t begin it on Wednesday, just to set the scene and introduce the characters, a classic amateur flaw. Plunge us right into the action the moment it starts. Why? Because nothing significant happened on Wednesday. You’re not writing someone’s life, you’re writing the story of a watershed moment in that life. The thing that happened to upset the equilibrium or the balance in his life is the thing that begins the story. That’s the inciting incident. That’s where your story should start.

…and he decided that he would pursue a goal.

There’s something this person wants. What is it? It’s the prize, the thing he’s trying to get through, all through the story. What is it that your main character wants? In the long run what does he hope to achieve?

So he devised a plan of action…

Let’s call this The Strategy. How is our hero going to go about pursuing his goal, or prize? What’s he going to do? What’s his plan?

…and even though there were forces trying to stop him…

This is the opposition, the conflict. Conflict is the basis of all drama. Our hero wants something, and he’s figured out a way of getting it. Something has to get in his way, something or somebody has to have a conflicting goal, and a conflicting plan C something has got to try and stop him. Nobody’s interested in reading a story about an guy who wanted a million dollars and got it. They want to read about a guy who wanted a million dollars and had a lot of trouble getting it. There are forces coming against our hero, there is conflict.

…he moved forward because there was a lot at stake.

Ah, The Stakes! What our hero wants, what plan he’s devised to get it, and what this effort will cost our hero? In chess, every move forward gains something, but it also loses something as well. Nothing of any importance in this life is free. In one form or another we always pay a price for what we most desire. In a story the stakes have to be very high. What are they in your? Life or death, lovers lost forever, friends becoming implacable enemies, something very important we can all relate to. You don’t want to write a story about a guy who is going to lose his typewriter or his comb. It’s got to be something very important, something big enough to disrupt his life, to change him from what he was into someone else by the end of the story.

And just as things seemed as bad as they could get…

This is known as the Bleakest Moment. Things are dark and dreary for this person. Everything has gone wrong and it seems as if the forces of opposition arrayed against him have won. But somehow, from the darkness of his despair and depression, from his failures, he finds the strength to persevere and overcome against overwhelming odds.

…he learned an important lesson,

Aha, a revelation. Our protagonist comes through his Bleakest Moment with a gift C understanding. At last he sees, he understands something about life that he didn’t understand before. Stories, whether fiction or non-fiction, are about people growing and changing, about their insights into the human condition. By the end of the story, this new knowledge has changed our protagonist for the better. He is a little wiser, and a little stronger, he has a little more faith in himself, or in others, or in the bountiful nature of life. He has grown and learned a lesson.

…and when offered the prize he had sought so strenuously he had to decide whether or not to take it…

He makes The Decision. The important thing to remember about this decision is that when he makes it, he gains something, and he gives something up. It isn’t much of a decision if someone says, “Hey, here you are. Here’s a million dollars, you can take it or leave it.” But if someone comes along and says, “Congratulations, now you can get your million dollars. But there’s one catch: if you take it you’ll never see your daughter again. And if you want to keep on seeing your daughter, you’ll never get another chance to get your million dollars you’ve just earned.” This now, is an important decision our hero must make.

…and in making that decision he satisfied a need…

Let’s call this The Hole. It is the engine that has been driving him to do stuff the whole of his life, and certainly for the duration of the story, though he may not even be aware of what that hole is.

…that had been created by something in his past.

This is the importance of the Backstory. The backstory simply means his past, whatever happened in his past relevant to the story you’re telling about our hero. The need or hole is something that happened to our hero before the story began. Something perhaps that haunts him. The enigmatic reference to the boyhood sled Rosebud, in Citizen Kane, for example. In someway the hero is still incomplete. He’s been injured, or he’s had a part of him taken away. Perhaps he’s lost his faith, or rejected love. Perhaps he’s a loner, someone who’s not good at sharing himself with others, and he comes into this story carrying this thing with him, needing this hole filled. And in the process of the story, the hole is filled as he comes to his realization.

Gary Provost and Peter Rubie were the co-authors of How to Tell a Story: The Secrets of Writing Captivating Tales. Thank to Gary’s widow Gail for granting permission to share this article. Gary Provost was born in 1944 and died in 1995. He was the author of many books across a range of genres and a gifted writing instructor and co-founder of the Writers Retreat Workshop.  You can read more about Gary at garyprovost.com.

[VIDEO POST] Social Media Myths Busted: An Interview with Stephanie Gunning by Social Media Strategist Laura Rubinstein

This video originally streamed live on May 6, 2014, as part of a series hosted by my dear friend Social Media Strategist Laura Rubinstein. It was a pleasure doing this, my first Google+ Hangout, with Laura. Way easier than I anticipated once I got the lighting set up. What a great potential way for an author to spread a message, too! Consider that, people.

Learn how to overcome your misconceptions and use social media like a master marketer…

Social Media Myths Busted with Stephanie Gunning

Laura is the author of  a great guide to overcoming social media resistance, which is now available on Kindle.

7 Steps to Promote Your Book on Facebook

[Guest Post by Laura Rubinstein]

STEP 1. START EARLY

Ideally, you will start your promotions a full year ahead of publication. That means if you’re not yet on Facebook and other social networks, make sure you get your accounts started. If you have been there, start engaging on a consistent basis. You will have no credibility if you show up the month before your book launches and try to start promoting it. Not only do you need to be there and be present, you need to have built meaningful relationships.

STEP 2. GET SET UP RIGHT

If you have a Facebook profile already, that’s great. Do you know how to optimize it? You may have done the obvious, like put up a nice cover photo and profile image. But have you linked your profile  to your business page? Can people easily find your website? Now is the time to do a Facebook audit and see what could help people learn more about you, find you on the web easily, and make sure you’re in compliance with Facebook terms. For example, you can only have one Facebook account. If you have more than one, that could be cause to get one of your accounts shut down. Most people don’t know that.

STEP 3. BUILD YOUR FRIENDS STRATEGICALLY

Accept friend requests from your target reading audience, and from friend influencers. Interact with these individuals online in a generous way. Give them help, promote their good work, send them appropriate good wishes (happy birthday, good luck, get well, congrats, and so on). Become someone they know, like, and trust. Deepen your relationship with them by taking it from social media to a phone call, Google Hangout, or even an in-person meeting.

STEP 4. JOIN GROUPS WHERE YOUR IDEAL READERS ARE AND BEGIN BEING A CONTRIBUTOR

Groups on Facebook are the most engaged places to find people with similar interests. When you join groups, find ways to contribute. Answer other people’s questions. Offer valuable resources you find that are not related to your own work, but would help the other group members.

STEP 5. CREATE A CONTENT STRATEGY

Planning your content ahead of time will make your social media experience flow and work like a well-oiled machine. Content should be 80 percent informational, educational, or entertainment oriented. The remaining 20 percent can contain a promotion about your book. Ideally the promotion is not too salesy. So a free chapter offer is better than a notice saying “Buy my book.”

Your content strategy should also include purchasing Facebook ads. To get visibility now on Facebook, you must pay for it. Facebook ads are an art form and I highly recommend getting a pro to help you with that.

Your content strategy should include establishing a business page for your book. As an alternative to creating a Facebook page solely for your  book, you can  focus your existing business page on the book.

Get creative with your content. Make sure it is in alignment with your intention, your book’s theme, and your reading audience. Create images, questions, polls, photos, and blogs. The more content you create, the better. Then you can schedule it out over time.

Listen to Stephanie Gunning’s Sessions Podcast with Laura Rubinstein

STEP 6. CREATE AN ENGAGEMENT STRATEGY

It is one thing to post content, but you can’t stop there. You must interact. Make sure you check your private messages, mentions, comments, shares, and respond. Also generously give Likes, write comments, and share other people’s’s content. Plan out the days you’re going to do this, and with whom you want to engage.

An engagement strategy ties includes your strategic friend-ing strategy, sharing on other people’s posts, and group participation.

STEP 7. BUILD A TRIBE WHO WILL SHARE YOUR CONTENT

A third-party endorsement of your work is far more valuable than blabbing about your own stuff. Not only does a third party lend credibility, but on social networks it offers you a huge opportunity to exponentially increase the number of people who know about your good work.  You will get some natural reciprocation of shares as you share. But if you want to have specific content shared you may want to use a network like Social Buzz Club (which I cofounded). Social Buzz Club is a platform that influencers use to share each other’s content. Members report increases of web traffic to their website up to 1000 percent or more.

lauraLaura Rubinstein, Author of SOCIAL MEDIA MYTHS BUSTED, is a certified social media marketing strategist, master leadership coach, and hypnotherapist. She helps business owners create a brand, buzz, and profitable relationships. She leads the Social Media Blast Off Course, a live social media marketing webinar series for entrepreneurs. Laura is also the co-founder of the Social Buzz Club, an online collaboration system that organically syndicates content for businesses across the major social networks.

Laura has mastered the art of relationship building and coached more than 1,000 business owners over the past 20 years in marketing strategies. Using her hypnotherapy background, Laura brings a keen awareness of habits and motivators that cause prospects to take action and yield results. Laura especially loves working with entrepreneurs who have a passion. Her repertoire of clients include:

  • American Express Cruise Planners,
  • Authors, Celebrities and Speakers like Alex Mandossian
  • Elvis Presley’s step brother, David Stanley
  • Up and coming teen sensation Cymphonique

Laura has the tools to leverage our time, the strategies that make deeper connections and the training to turn our passions into profits using social media sites like Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, YouTube, and blogging.

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So, What’s a “Book” These Days?

post2I was recently reminded of my visceral connection to books by a conversation with a friend. Ed, who works in TV, is a Manhattanite like me, and was talking about having to visit his late father’s home on Long Island on one of his weekends off, a journey by public transportation that in the snow, rain, and wind biting winter cold can be what we in the City call a “schlep.” He was going out there to deal with some 3,000-odd books his father had collected over the years. “He was a voracious reader,” said Ed. “I have to figure out what to do with all these books, some of which are quite unusual, like an autographed 1938 travel guide written by Eugene Fodor.”

After a few moments of conversation I confessed to Ed that my knee jerk reaction on hearing of this unexpected treasure trove was to catch a ride with him and spend the weekend browsing the bookshelves cherry picking titles I would take home. Of course, I wasn’t going to do that even if I could because it’s impractical, there’s not enough the room in my apartment. But Ed’s news reminded me that when I find myself surrounded by towering stacks of books I somehow feel at peace in a way that others talk about why they go to church.

I wonder if my eleven-year old son, who is a reader and professes seriously to want to become a writer, will ever feel or think about books the way I do.

“It’s a confusing time for those of us who read and write for a living.”

 

edwardianPublishing, in its broadest sense, includes newspapers and magazines as well as books as we commonly understand them, and it breaks down into two groups: disposable reading, like newspapers or mass-market paperbacks that you give away or throw away once you’ve consumed them; and material you’d like to keep on your bookshelves (real or virtual) and revisit from time to time. And there’s the rub: real or virtual.

It’s a confusing time for those of us who read and write for a living, and it’s not just about digital books versus print books. Contrary to popular belief, reading isn’t a “passive” act, but a dynamic one involving the reader’s active engagement in the experience. But that engagement is changing, or evolving (take your pick). Consider, for example, a viral YouTube video in 2011, “A Magazine Is an iPad that Doesn’t Work“ showing a one-year old girl giggle and poke an iPad, and then try to do the same thing to a printed magazine with increasing frustration.

Is a Magazine Really Just an iPad That Doesn’t Work?

The girl’s father concludes in a printed caption that, “For my daughter, a magazine is an iPad that does not work. It will remain so for her whole life. Steve Jobs has coded a part of her OS.” He goes on, “The video shows how magazines are now useless and impossible to understand, for digital natives . . . medium is message.”

There is a naivete here (let’s be kind) that displays an assumption the child will never learn to enjoy and appreciate the printed book as she gets older, which I seriously take issue with. It doesn’t take into consideration, for example, that babies like to touch, bite, and taste anything and everything. And if it moves, it delights them, and the ones that can talk say, “Again.”

But it does play into a discussion that is driving the publishing industry as it undergoes a paradigm shift that is clearly comparable to the Gutenberg revolution in the 1450s, and decisions are being made as to how our reading matter is going to be presented to us that are much more than just cosmetic, whether it be on printed pages (books), or eInk pages (dedicated digital books), or backlit images of pages perhaps with added sound and images (books as apps).

What’s Best, Print or Digital?

The video also points out something else about printed books and how we learn to read at an early age. That is, to develop a book habit you need as a child to actively engage on a regular basis with printed books with another human being (ideally a parent), in order to get the most out of the reading experience later in life. A disdain for books of any sort, rather than a passion for them, is arguably the greatest divide between the classes at the moment, particularly the working class, and the greatest hindrance to upward mobility.

The experience of learning to appreciate and enjoy the printed book early on is somewhat akin to how each of us learns what our idiosyncratic “comfort foods” are. The ebook, in the broadest sense, then becomes a kind of shorthand reminder of that experience. And to maintain the societal value of books, we have to make readers out of too many stressed parents who were not encouraged to read as children, and were forced to read the wrong books at school.

“Book people” have to somehow convince them to not take the seductively easy way out, by giving young kids in particular “addictive” electronic toys that, unlike “real” toys and books, engage some but not all of the senses. The adults justify their lack of engagement with the children as something forced on them by modern lifestyle choices, rather than admitting that at least on one level, the electronic toy is a convenient nanny, albeit an addictive one. In short, you can tut-tut or applaud the one-year-old and the iPad, or sit her on your knee and read an engaging book with her nightly, create a reading habit and a love of books, and reap the rewards when she or he starts school.

“A disdain for books of any sort, rather than a passion for them, is arguably the greatest divide between the classes at the moment.”

 

In 2001, several years before Sony released their eReader, Marc Prensky coined the term digital native in a seminal essay, “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants“ (from On the Horizon, MCB University Press). Very crudely, a digital native is anyone born during or after 2000. A digital immigrant is someone born prior to that date, though the definitions, like the terms themselves, are fluid.

Dividing people into digital natives and digital immigrants is controversial. Some digital immigrants (such as Steve Jobs, for example) surpass digital natives in tech savvy, but the idea that early exposure to technology fundamentally changes the way people learn is clearly beginning to impact how we pass along knowledge to others, the next generation in particular. And books are an indispensable part of that process. Using one kind of technology (and the printed book is a beautiful example of unmatched technological efficiency and design grace) does not preclude understanding and using other forms. But the cliché, to the man with a hammer everything looks like nail, aptly describes the swirling discussion about what kind of book form, electronic or printed, is best?

Dividing Our Attention

Ferris Jabr, in an April, 2013 article in Scientific American, “The Reading Brain in the Digital Age” puts the question this way:

“As digital texts and technologies become more prevalent, we gain new and more mobile ways of reading—but are we still reading as attentively and thoroughly? How do our brains respond differently to onscreen text than to words on paper? Should we be worried about dividing our attention between pixels and ink or is the validity of such concerns paper-thin?”

If we lose the printed book, as some argue is inevitable, we don’t just lose an antiquated form of the book, we stand to make the whole experience of reading superficial. And that threatens a lot more than an entertainment delivery system. It impacts how we pass along knowledge and complex ideas that can’t always be readily reduced to images. We are becoming a society that reveres the visual over the abstract intellectual power of words to the point where the profound is made superficial, and our ability to think creatively is limited to 120 characters. We’re OD’ing on manipulated emotion, often confusing melodrama with relevance and reacting rather than considering.

Visually Dominated

Friends and acquaintances enamored with the idea of the new inevitably replacing the old because it will innately improve their lives, proselytize that we are becoming a “visually dominated” society and printed books are going the way of Victorian buggy whips. But the story of reading and writing is a relatively new one, dating back only 5,000 or so years. In terms of human history this is almost yesterday morning. Curiously, some of the earliest forms of writing, such as Sumerian cuneiform and Chinese hanzi (and Japanese kanji) involved characters that began as pictures and took on a more profound meaning than just representation the more they were used. So as far as the impact of the visual is concerned what’s new is really old, it turns out.

Another curious fact is that the term we use for navigating digital texts is called scrolling, a direct reference to linear reading that forces the reader to start from the beginning and move in a straight line to the end (such as reading the Jewish Torah). The invention of the printed book by Guttenberg in 1454 was not just a revolution of industrialization over artisanship, but of how we read and learn. The printed book became an example of non-linear reading (you can jump almost instantly from page 8 to page 273) that spurred an explosion of learning and creativity that in turn profoundly shaped the development of civilization for the next 600 or so years.

Digital Text Can Hinder Intuitive Learning

As we look forward, the idea of what a book is will likely also be informed by a growing body of scientific evidence that points to the conclusion that, for many people if not all, while ebooks are wonderful tools in certain circumstances, digital forms of text greatly hinder most people taking in long texts in an intuitive way, because they are being forced to engage in linear reading (scrolls), rather than non-linear reading (print book).

Screens appear to demand more of our mental resources while we read, so those who use ebook for text books, for example, have a harder time remembering what they’ve read, and need to revisit the same text more times than those who read the same passages on printed pages. The book, in other words, needs physicality to it, a sensuality the virtual can only remind us of but not fully give us, that is as important to our educational and spiritual well-being as the need for a real spousal partner, compared to the more unsatisfying relationship you can have with an online, emotional “safe” partner you can turn off whenever you want.

“I don’t think ebook manufacturers have thought enough about how you might visualize where you are in a book.”
—Abigail Sellen, Microsoft Research Cambridge

 

Jabr sums this up in his Scientific American article this way: “As an analogy, imagine if Google Maps allowed people to navigate street by individual street, as well as to teleport to any specific address, but prevented them from zooming out to see a neighborhood, state or country. Although ereaders like the Kindle and tablets like the iPad recreate pagination—sometimes complete with page numbers, headers, and illustrations—the screen only displays a single virtual page: It is there and then it is gone. Instead of hiking the trail yourself, the trees, rocks, and moss move past you in flashes with no trace of what came before and no way to see what lies ahead.

The Feel of a Print Book Is More Important
Than We Realized

“The implicit feel of where you are in a physical book turns out to be more important than we realized,” says Abigail Sellen of Microsoft Research Cambridge in England and coauthor of The Myth of the Paperless Office. “Only when you get an ebook do you start to miss it. I don’t think ebook manufacturers have thought enough about how you might visualize where you are in a book.”

So, in the end, I think the discussions about what makes a book becomes deceptively empty. Neither ebooks nor print books are going away any time soon, and for good reason both have strengths and weaknesses that complement the other. The danger is in taking a position that says only one form is valid and the other doomed. There’s room for all in our homes, it seems, as long as you use them sensibly.

Three Magic Words? Tips for Book Titles

post1We all know a well-written manuscript is essential to successful book publishing. But did you know that the title of your book might be just as vital to marketing it and having it become successful as the quality of the text? The right title ensures that you pique the interest of the book buyers you are targeting. Think about it. People ain’t even gonna read what you wrote if their first impression of your book as a product or an object is poor: a title and cover image they don’t like.

Your Title Must Match the Contents

 


The title is a significant issue to publishers. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and What to Expect When You’re Expecting are examples of two classic, unforgettable titles and books. Life After Life, a popular literary novel read by dozens of women’s book groups in the past year or so was again unforgettable. The book was well-written and the title matched the contents: the story of a woman who is reborn again and again until she “lives her purpose.”

Be Clear, Describe a Specific Need or a Specific Result

 


I’ve seen publishers change the title of a well-written book after the hardcover edition tanked on the shelves because they knew something was off in its appeal the first time around. Too clever titles can fail and if they do then the book package has to become more straightforward. Cuteness can be confusing. If your book is about back pain, your reader is likely going to be searching for a book called Healing Back Pain or Oh, My Aching Back. Your title should meet them at their destination. If you are going for a “result” title, then title your book Permanent Relief from Back Pain or Back Pain Solutions.

Sometimes an unexpected market gets interested in you and you decide that you want to sell harder and appeal more directly to their taste or interests than to others. Others can benefit, but you should encode the title for your strongest readership.

Reveal Your Process . . . in a Nutshell

 


In nonfiction, your title largely depends on who you imagine your reader to be. Put a title on your book that incorporates words and phrases that matter to THAT person. Such a title could be about who they become, it could be about the process they undergo, it could be about where they are now in life.

Some would say that your title and subtitle let your readers know you understand their pain, and who they will be once they or their lives been transformed by what you have to offer them in your book. Your solution is the way to overcome their obstacle or relieve their suffering. I’m thinking, as an example, about Jorge Cruise’s book The Three-Hour Diet, a process title. Eat every three hours and lose weight is the promise.

Speak to Your Readers’ Hearts

Title discovery is an organic process on the part of readers, so naming a book needs to be an organic process on the part of authors and publishers as well. The right title may land on you fully fleshed like Venus on a Half Shell, rising from the ocean foam, or Athena cracking out of Zeus’s forehead. If we understand how readers think we can come at them from the emotional perspective.

A Clever Three-Word Formula for Book Titles

 


I remember seeing a clever little computer software tool a couple of years ago that analyzed fiction titles. It liked three-word titles beginning with The, especially: The Adjective Noun. The Da Vinci Code. A variation on the stand-alone noun. The Noun. The Nanny. The Help. The Hobbit. Those are good for books about people or one specific person.

The simple noun can also work for location and context. A Year in Provence. Last Tango in Paris. Interview with the Vampire. I don’t entirely agree with the necessity for formulas, but when I hear these sorts of titles I actually hear them in my head like percussion—linked chains of long and short syllables with various stressors. They remind me of poetry measured in iambs: hard soft, soft hard; long short, short long.

Rhythm is the reason we like limericks:
“There once was a girl from Nantucket…”

 

Use Surprising Counterpoints

 


Here’s a title that uses a surprising counterpoint: The Gifts of Imperfection by Bréne Brown. “Gifts Of” is sort of like an adjective in that it describes a quality, in this case “imperfection.” But what makes the title stand out is that it’s the opposite point of view to the one you would normally think about when hearing the word imperfection.

This title wakes up the brain and tempts the reader to try to find out the context, doesn’t it? So that comes in the subtitle: Let Go of Who You Think You‘re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are. Ahhhh, a book on being happier because we love our flaws. Unconditional self-esteem is the promise.

Or what about The $100 Startup by Chris Guillebeau? Process combined with our favorite formulas, The Adjective Noun. It’s promise is reinvention!

Bottom line. Think about what you’re accomplishing for your reader. Then sum it up in three magic words.

Of course, there is no one way to do anything. Formulas are too rigid. Here’s another piece of advice therefore, which is also important: Keep working on your title until the hair on your forearms stand up. That little bit of emotional reactivity is a sure sign you’ve just about nailed it.

And my final advice: Road test your title on your target readers. They know what floats their boats.

You can find Stephanie at http://stephaniegunning.com