What separates an excellent and mediocre story? Why do some books, TV shows, or films keep us up into the wee hours of the morning?
Sleep optional until we find out what happens next.
While other stories never grab our attention and fizzle out on page fifty or episode two.
Glad you asked. Every great story has common similarities.
Seven to be exact.
If you want to write compelling, interesting, and page turning stories, consider these seven story structure elements. Every story has them, and the great ones, nail them.
These ideas aren’t totally my own, but have revolutionized how I write novels, and understand story structure. These seven story elements come from John Truby’s book, The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller.
What Truby calls: The Seven Key Steps of Story Structure. These seven steps are the heartbeat of every story because they involve human action. And human action involves characters and characters are the reason we love stories.
Let’s examine the steps together, and see how we can make our next story page turning awesomeness, keeping our readers up late into the night.
Step #1 A Hero
A hero in a setting with a flaw/weakness/need.
Every great story has a hero (main character) with serious problems. A flaw or weakness that’s ruining their lives. The bigger the problem the more interesting the story.
A need is what the character must overcome for them to have a good life. This typically involves overcoming the flaw/weakness and growing by the end of the story.
Great characters and great stories have two kinds of weaknesses/flaws:
1. Psychological- some kind of flaw that causes harm to the hero only.
2. Moral- some kind of flaw/weakness that causes problems for everyone else.
The secret sauce of great storytelling and crafting compelling characters is to ensure they have psychological and moral flaws.
A great example: Silence of the Lambs.
Weakness: Clarice is an inexperienced FBI, haunted by childhood memories, and a woman living in a man’s world.
Need: Overcome her past and prove she’s a good agent in a man’s world.
Key point: people don’t like perfect characters, or victims. Boring! People can’t relate to perfection. Beat the crap out of your heroes. Your readers will thank you.
Step #2: A Desire (Goal)
A hero in a setting, with a flaw/weakness/need, and a desire (goal).
Every story has a particular goal and desire the hero must accomplish. That is why readers come along for the ride. They want to solve it with you. The desire is the hinge for everything.
If your story doesn’t have a defined desire/goal, you don’t have a story, or a very boring one. A story that goes nowhere.
Now, don’t miss this. The flaw/weakness of the hero is something within. The desire and goal of the hero is external. Don’t confuse the two.
Typically when the hero solves the weakness/flaw dilemma they’ve now reached their desire/goal. The flaw and need of the hero is often more obvious. The desire less so.
Example: Saving Private Ryan, John Miller wants to be home with his family and friends. The entire mission for saving Private Ryan, is so he can get home, so he thinks.
But when you get to the end of the movie, when Miller has a chance to go back home, he realizes the mission was much deeper. Miller is willing to die for the mission to see Private Ryan get home.
Step #3 The Opponent
A hero in a setting, with a flaw/weakness, and a desire, and someone/something opposing their goal.
The opponent is what we call the antagonist, or villain. Now, here’s the key for making compelling opponents for the hero to battle. They don’t just do evil or look evil.
The opponent wants the same thing as the hero, and will do anything for the hero not to get it.
Did you catch that? The opponent can’t want something random in the story. No, the opponent has to want what the hero wants. The thing that’s making the hero miserable is what the opponent wants.
If you do this well, it will create all kinds of tension and problems for the hero, and tension and conflict makes for great stories.
Key point: the easy way to create a good opponent, is to think about the hero’s primary goal/desire. Then create an opponent that wants to attack that goal and desire. You can even have them attack the psychological and moral flaws of the hero.
Another trick to make your stories page turners.
Step #4 A Plan
A hero in a setting, with a flaw, desire, someone opposing them, and a plan to fight.
Once you have a character with a flaw, a desire, an opponent, you need a plan to finish the mission. Good stories will often have a mentor, guide, or helper, to encourage the hero and craft a strategy for winning the battle against the opponent.
Example: Star Wars, Yoda trains Luke to defeat Darth Vader (dark side) for control of the universe (Force- light side).
Key point: when you’re building out a plan/strategy, build tension by having the hero fail multiple times at the plan before reaching their goal. That will keep the reader turning the pages. Attempt, fail, attempt, fail, etc. This creates good tension before the final battle.
Step #5: A Battle
A hero in a setting, with a flaw, desire, someone opposing them, a plan to fight, and a final battle.
The battle can be words or action. Most often a battle will happen in the middle of a story where the hero fails against the opponent. But remember, the desire (goal) of the hero, and the desire to stop the goal of the hero, by the opponent, will build to a final battle.
Will the hero or opponent win?
You can go either way depending on what the story needs. (FYI: Romance readers expect the boy and girl to end up together).
Step #6: A Self Revelation
A hero in a setting, with a flaw, desire, someone opposing them, a plan to fight, final battle, the hero realizes their desire/weakness/flaw.
After the battle, we wear the hero down, and they come to a painful self-revelation. They aren’t who they thought. They’re weak, flawed, and jacked up.
The more you can help the hero see their imperfections, the better. Make the moral and psychological needs come to the surface.
Pro tip: don’t make this preachy and too obvious, that’s lame. But reveal what the hero’s true colors are, the good and bad.
Example: Huckleberry Finn, when Huck realizes he was wrong thinking Jim was less than human. Huck won’t tell of Jim’s whereabouts, and would rather go to hell, then see him caught.
Step #7: A New Equilibrium
A hero in a setting, with a flaw, desire, someone opposing them, a plan to fight, final battle, the hero realizes their desire/weakness/flaw, and goes back to normal.
The hero must change and grow. One caveat, the hero can grow to a higher level and learn to live in the world.
Or, the hero can go lower. Let’s say they’ve committed a crime, and now must live with the consequences. It doesn’t have to be a happy ending to write a compelling and page turning story.
Examples of a hero rising: Die Hard, John defeats the criminals, saves his wife, and renews his love to her.
Example of a hero going low: Vertigo, he drags the woman to the top of the tower to confess to a murder, and she falls to her death.
Wow, that’s a lot, I know. But all you have to do is craft characters and scenes that serve these seven elements. If you do, you’ll have an excellent story to share with the world.
Go get those words on the page!
(Source: The Anatomy of Story, John Truby, adapted from pages 39–55)