Story Formula

Character + Wants + Obstacles + Determination= Story. The formula for a good story is only a formula, but you’d be surprised at how well it works. Many writers struggle with synopses, queries and elevator pitches because they don’t have this formula worked out for their novel. Sometimes I hear that a writer believes her story is so unique it doesn’t fit into the formula. Really? In my experience, most stories can be reduced to some archetype, whether it’s the hero’s journey or just some high-stakes high-jinks or a romance.
Writing Tip for Today: Of course, you won’t be submitting a proposal with plus and equal signs. You’ll need to insert the elements of story into a narrative. By this method you should be able to come up with a 25, 100 and 250 word version of your story. Start with the bare bones for the shortest version:
Character A wants B. But Obstacle C is determined to see her fail. Character A must [struggle, battle, overcome] Obstacle C by doing D and [learns, discovers, changes, grows] as she [wins, loses draws] B in the end.
In this bare bones version, the only other thing you might squeeze in is the time/setting. With the longer versions, add in details as you can. Most of the time, multiple viewpoints and subplots will not be mentioned in these brief treatments. Another hint: For inspiration, head to the jacket flap or back cover copy of books in your genre or for even shorter descriptions, look at the movie section of your TV Guide where one sentence tag lines are listed.
Try This! Using your WIP (work in progress) insert the correct words for your story into the formula. You should come out with a one or two sentence “tag” line for your story. A story that doesn’t fit the mold can suffer from low stakes, the writer not really knowing what the novel’s about or both. For a great example of a fiction proposal, read Barbara Scott’s blog entry on The Roving Editor

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About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

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