Structure is one area that beginning writers struggle with the most. We all know our stories should have suspense, surprise, drama, intrigue, and all sorts of other spicy elements. But how do we create a structure that delivers all of these elements?
Over the years of working with writers as and editor and creative writing teacher, I’ve developed what I call a foolproof seven-step story-building model. Not only is this model effective for building stories, you can apply the same structure to building individual scenes. Here’s a quick breakdown along with an example to illustrate it.
Step 1: Establish minimal expectations
Every character enters a scene or a story thinking things are going to occur as normal. They’re not expecting anything extraordinary to happen, and so they behave accordingly. This is the first thing you need to establish. For example, a woman is late for a very important job interview, so she speeds through a suburban neighborhood. She thinks this is just like any other job interview, and she’s in jeopardy of screwing it up.
Step 2: Introduce a dilemma
A dilemma is a no-win situation or a Catch-22. It’s a choice between the lesser of two evils. This should be introduced as quickly as possible after establishing expectations. In our example, while racing to the interview, the woman accidentally hits a rather distinctive looking dog with her car. Now she’s in a fix. She can either stop to find out whose dog it is, thus jeopardizing the job interview or she can just keep going.
Step 3: Protagonist takes minimal action to resolve conflict
At this point the character still doesn’t really realize what the scene or story is actually about, so she responds to the situation as if it’s business as usual. In the case of our example, she doesn’t search for the owner or keep going. She actually tosses the dog in her trunk, planning to return later to find its owner.
Step 4: Unexpected antagonism unleashed
This is the most crucial part of any scene. Because the protagonist underestimated the true nature of the dilemma, instead of making the situation better, the action she took to resolve it actually made things worse. The key here is that the unexpected antagonism is character-driven, not some random event. I like to think of this stage as a land mine that is hidden in the middle of scene. Once a character steps on it, readers hears a “click.” They know the moment the character lifts her foot; everything is going to blow sky high. In our example, this could take the form of the woman getting to the interview just in time-only to see a picture on the employer’s desk that features the employer and the dog the woman just hit. Uh oh” Mistaking her alarm for interest, the employer talks about the dog, particularly it’s distinctive bark.
Step 5: Protagonist forms new goal and strategy to achieve it
Now that the stakes have shifted substantially-once the character has the true measure of the dilemma they underestimated earlier-it’s only natural for the character’s goal to shift. And she quickly cobbles together a strategy to achieve it. In our example, the woman is so flustered by the photo she almost blows the interview. But her quick answers actually impress the boss and she gets the job. The woman is overjoyed, but at this point she has only one thought on her mind-get rid of the dog. Now that she knows the boss is the owner, there’s no way she can “fess up to what she’s done.
Step 6: Peak
A scene can really only peak in one of two ways-success or failure. Either way, the character will gain some kind of insight that will come in handy later in life or in a later scene. To close out our example, perhaps the woman is on her way to ditch the dog when she gets a flat tire. Cursing her bad luck, she gets out and flags down a passing vehicle. Who should pull over but her new employer! Frantic to prevent him from seeing inside the trunk, she gets the spare tire out on her own, only to have a bark issue from the trunk. It turns out the dog wasn’t dead after all! She slams the trunk and gives the employer a sick smile as the barking continues and his anger grows. And”¦ cut
Step 7: Implication
This isn’t so much a stage in the scene as a feeling or realization we get at the end of the scene or story. In our example, the implication is that not only will she not get the job; she may now actually be charged with abducting the dog. Or who knows, once she explains what happens, he might forgive her. But not likely. Either way, you don’t want to show it; you just want to imply it.
So there you have it; seven steps to a well-structured scene or story. Have fun with it!
Featured image by James Christensen, fantasy artist