I know you’ve all been here- You have an idea. It’s a wonderful, unique, and in your mind BRILLIANT idea, for a story. This is the story that will make you a pro. It’s your Great Gatsby, your Hobbit, your Carrie. All you have to do is write it.
That’s the tricky part, isn’t it?
Good ideas are easy to come by. And story ideas are like, well I’m not going to say what they’re like, but everybody’s got one. An idea is nothing more than a premise. A real writer has to do the work of taking that premise and expanding it to an honest-to-god story.
Beginning, middle, end.
This is where things start to get tricky. How do you begin a story? What goes in the middle? Worst of all these questions is- How the hell do you end it?
A few years ago, I had an idea for a story, and for once I decided I was actually going to try and write it. So, not knowing anything about fiction writing, I sat down and started typing. And typing, And typing. Until eventually I lost all momentum.
The problem was I didn’t know how a story worked. I needed a set of guidelines to follow. I needed structure. An outline. But…
How do you outline your story?
The good news is that there are plenty of story structures for you to copy. There are screenplay beat sheets, the hero’s journey, and my personal favorite:
The Four Act Structure
Why do I like the four-act structure? Because it tells you exactly what to do, and when to do it. Start by dividing your story into four sections. Each section has its own unique mission within the context of your story. But first…
Let’s talk about scenes.
Scenes are the basic units of your story. They have their own rules and structure. More on that in a future post, but for now, you need to know about how many scenes you’ll have in your story.
How can you guess this? Depends on what you’re writing. Let’s say an average scene runs about one thousand words. Some scenes are longer, some shorter, but 1000 is a nice round number. So, let’s say you’re writing a novel- ambitious- you’ll need 60,000 to 100,000 words. Or, 60 to 100 scenes.
Maybe your idea works better as a short story. Those run from 7,000 to 10,000 words. That’s 7 to 10 scenes. I like to write short stories. Let’s use a short story as an example. And let’s…
Outline Our Story!
So, I want to write my story in four acts, and since I’m writing a short story I’ll estimate that it will have about 8,000 words. That means 8 scenes or two scenes per act. Does your story have to have an even number of scenes per act? Hell no! But, when you’re first starting out this will make things a little easier.
Now that you know how many scenes you’ll have you can outline each scene individually. I like to do this on a single note card- one per scene. You might want to use eight sheets in a notebook, or draw eight boxes on a blank piece of copy paper. Whatever gets the job done.
The next thing we need to do is to outline each scene in the context of the four-act structure. By doing this, each scene will have a specific goal to drives your plot forward. We’ll start in the most obvious place:
The first two scenes.
What to do:
What do these scenes need to accomplish? First, you need to introduce the reader to your main character, or characters. We need to get a sense of who they are. Their personality. How they interact with the world. You also need to tell us something about the setting of your story. A quick description of a quiet country farm gives your reader an idea of where this story is taking place.
Use these two scenes to establish the stakes of your story. What does the main character have to lose? Because you’ll be introducing a conflict very shortly. And here’s the most important thing to do in the first act.
Hook your reader! Give us something exciting to sink our teeth into. To keep us turning the pages. This could come in the form of an inciting incident, but you need to grab your reader’s attention quickly.
Finally, you need to set the conflict in motion. Remember that quiet country farm? Hit it with a tornado. Suck your main character up in the maw and toss her into oblivion only for her to wake up in an exotic new world. In other words, let your reader know…
“We’re not in Kansas anymore.”
Scenes Two & Three.
What to do:
This is where your hero will start to formulate a plan to overcome the conflict. How will she get back home? Apparently, there’s a powerful wizard who might be of some help. The plan should seem pretty solid. A rational way out of this predicament that your protagonist finds themselves in.
The second act of your story is all about reacting to the problem that was introduced at the end of the first act. But, how many times have you solved a complicated problem on your first try? Probably never, and that’s the important thing to remember about act II.
The plan needs to fail. Fail big.
Scenes Five & Six
What to do:
If Act II Is about reacting, then Act III is about recovering. Your character needs some time to hide out and recoup from their failure. This is a great place for your characters to engage in a little introspection. To start to think about why things have gone so poorly. What inner demons hold your characters back?
Third acts are easy to spot in films. They usually consist of characters finding temporary safe harbor. People licking their wounds, talking to one another, revealing deep truths about themselves. It’s the eye of the storm. For a moment everything is calm. This is a great way to slow things down for your reader and give them a break before the big finale.
But, by the end of Act III things have gotten much, much worse. The stakes are suddenly higher than ever, and success seems all but impossible. That’s when you move on to…
Scenes Seven & Eight
What to do:
The final confrontation. An end to the villain who’s plagued your protagonist since Act One. There’s a new plan of action that’s “so crazy it just might work.” Your protagonist may sacrifice himself for the greater good. Or they might finally overcome that one fatal flaw.
Remember when Marty McFly refuses that drag race at the end of Back to The Future III? He finally realizes that it’s not that huge a deal if someone calls you a chicken. That’s how you overcome a flaw.
By the end of Act IV, you want to return your story to a sense of balance and order. The hero returns home, triumphant and a better person then when they left. Or, maybe they discover that “home” is the group of companions they’ve met along the journey.
Now that you’re finished with rough outlines of each scene, it’s time to write your complete first draft.
And that’s it. Simple right? In theory, yes, but in practice, well, results may vary. Understand that this is not the only way to structure a story, but it is a tried and true method. By outlining your scenes you can take that awesome idea and mold it into a solid first draft. A first draft that will probably suck. Because that’s just how first drafts go.
Don’t let that discourage you.
I first read about this technique in Larry Brooks’ book Story Engineering (this is not an affiliate link by the way. Amazon terminated my affiliate status, the bastards)