“Story-telling and writing fiction are very different skills,” the professor said.
I immediately wanted to disagree with him. But then I thought about that dictation software I purchased and rarely used. For somewhere around $70 I had a top-of-the-line program ready to turn my speech into text. In the end, it turned hard drive storage into wasted space.
Telling a captivating story out loud is not the same as writing a page-turner novel. I’ve written some decent stuff over the years, and I’ve told some decent stories to my friends. But you can’t transcribe the latter and automatically have a great piece of prose ready for readers.
So I decided to listen and accept that maybe Dr. Guthridge knew what he was talking about.
(His awards and successes could have sufficed.)
Dr. Guthridge provided a formulaic method for plotting and outlining short stories–one that presumably works pretty well with full-length novels.
For sci-fi, fantasy, and horror, start with your cool idea. Maybe it’s a magic system, a piece of technology, or a creepy monster. Honestly, you can also come up with cool ideas for mainstream fiction–you just need an interesting fact or two upon which to base the story.
Brainstorm a protagonist and a problem that protagonist might have, based on the cool idea or historical inspiration. The protag should have an inner, emotional problem that needs to be resolved… insecurity, hatred, fear, anger. Something they’ve tried to keep at bay, but it clearly affects everything about them.
The outer problem is the conflict that forces the protag to deal with their inner emotional baggage. It’s the issue that pulls all of that junk to the surface to be confronted.
Brainstorm a few false solutions. These don’t have to be super intellectual and creative; in fact, we often distract ourselves and delay coming up with useful ideas by looking for the most creative, least expected attempted solution. These solutions are intended to fail, so it’s fine–maybe even preferred–if they’re the “obvious” answers to the outer problem. Unstable magic energy is creating a disturbance? Great… send in a magician to collect or contain it. A piece of technology isn’t functioning, and threatens innocent lives? Pull the plug… it’s a no-brainer.
Also brainstorm easy ways that these failed and false solutions will make things worse. Skynet starts a global thermonuclear war when the military tries to pull the plug. Noble men go mad with lust for power when they try to use the Ring of Power as a weapon against Sauron. Bullets don’t stop Jason Voorhes, they just make him chase you.
The final solution is where brainstorming and creativity come into play. This has to be unexpected. (Readers will be unsatisfied if they guessed the ending from the beginning.) This has to be unique and intelligent. (Readers will be frustrated if the answer is something obvious and simple like pulling the plug.) And this solution has to not only solve the outer problem but also resolve the protag’s internal conflict–because that’s really what the story is about.
Since “everyone is a unique snowflake,” the creative person in me hates the idea that good fiction usually has some clear structure we should mechanically duplicate. Where’s the freedom of expression? Where’s the special quality that sets apart one writer’s fiction from another’s?
But this sort of construct works really well as a framework upon which we build and decorate a house.
It reminds me of James Scott Bell’s LOCK concept:
Every story has a relatable and interesting Lead. The lead character must have an achievable and important Objective. There must be considerable and meaningful Conflict preventing the lead from easily achieving the objective. And the reader expects a Knockout ending that wraps it all up in an exciting way.
The fact is, the meat of telling a good story or writing good fiction hasn’t changed much over the centuries and millenia of recorded human history. These are the tales that speak to us and capture our imaginations over and over again.
Even if it feels formulaic, why fix what isn’t broke?
What do you think? Is this too simplistic a view? Is there more to the story (pun intended)? Let me know in a comment.