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Want to Write Page Turning Stories? Take These 7 Steps

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.

Why?

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)

*originally published on The Writer Cooperative

Don’t Wait for the Muse- Advice from Stephen King

A frequently asked question of authors: where do ideas come from? A good question but if we peel back the onion, it makes a lot of assumptions.

An assumption that inspiration, motivation, and ideas, come from what some call, The Muse. Mousa, was the daughter of Zeus, a goddess assigned to oversee the arts, and inspire artists to create. A sky ferry of sorts visiting the struggling writer with inspiration and ideas.

We wait while our next great idea is born and Mousa, comes to nudge it along. But until the ideas falls, we sit idle.

A second assumption is that professional writers have fully baked ideas when they come to the page. Not true. Their best ideas came when they showed up. When they applied butt in a chair. Our best ideas have no chance of seeing the light of day until we add words to the page.

The myth of the muse has damaged many a writer. Held too many writers back. Stephen King in his famous book on the craft of writing, On Writing, said this about the muse:

“Don’t wait for the muse. As I’ve said, he’s a hardheaded guy who’s not susceptible to a lot of creative fluttering. This isn’t the Ouija board or the spirit-world we’re talking about here, but just another job like laying pipe or driving long-haul trucks. Your job is to make sure the muse knows where you’re going to be every day from nine ’til noon. Or seven ’til three. If he does know, I assure you that sooner or later he’ll start showing up.”

I’m not willing to say there’s nothing magical about writing. Where do ideas come from? Why do we write? How does a story take shape? The subconscious, God, the muse? I think all of it. It is magic.

But you can’t wait for the magic. You’ll be waiting a long time.

Nothing good in life happens through passivity. The girl you married didn’t come about because you prayed and waited for her to knock on the door. You made the call, set up the date, and later asked her hand in marriage.

Relationships take work to flourish and writing is no different. Lay the pipe and drive the truck. The muse won’t do it for you.

Somewhere along our journey’s the myth of the muse poked its mythical head in our writing room. The magical creature that shoots ideas out of her butt, into your brain, and then funnels to our fingers. Instead of laying pipe, we sit in the truck, and wait for inspiration.

Steven Pressfield in a recent interview said he wears work boots to write every day. Why? You know, because there’s no Muse. The work boots are a reminder to punch the clock and do the work.

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and your next book, or article, wasn’t built while you napped. It came to life with fingers tapping, a computer buzzing, coffee flowing, and a back aching.

Waiting for the muse is rooted in fear. A fear of being exposed as a phony and wannabe writer. An opportunity for Resistance to sink her claws into our writing souls.

Later in On Writing King explains the difference between pros and amateurs:

“Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.”

Pressfield wears work boots to remind himself it’s time to lay pipe. King writes from nine ’til noon whether or not the muse shows up. Grisham sets a goal of ten pages per day. Muse or no muse. I write 10,000 words a week, whether or not I’m feeling it. The difference between the pro and the amateur.

Now before I go, there’s something King said which is super practical advice. Something we can apply to our writing craft today. Let’s not leave this conversation in the ether:

“Your job is to make sure the muse knows where you’re going to be every day from nine ’til noon.”

If you need The Muse, fine. But make sure he/she knows where you’ll be. Have you determined your writing time/place? Is it on the calendar? We schedule everything else in our lives why does our writing get second fiddle?

Or, are you too much of an artist? You only write on Tuesday’s after drinking fox tears from a silver goblet? You only write when the schedule allows for it?

The more we plant butt in a chair at consistent intervals the better chance the muse can sprinkle story dust on our heads. Funny how that works.

Tell the muse what time you’ll be writing tomorrow. They’re welcome to visit anytime. If they forgo the invitation, fine, we’ll still be laying pipe, and punching the clock.

You know where to find us.

*Originally published on The Writer Cooperative

Jerry Seinfeld’s 3.1 Billion Dollar Writing Trick

Jerry Seinfeld wrote and starred in the most famous and profitable sitcom of all time, Seinfeld.

How did he do it?

Was Seinfeld the best actor of our generation? Nope. Watch the show and you’d agree. Seinfeld agrees.

How about a case of right time and right place? Maybe. But Seinfeld barely stayed on the air for the first three seasons. It limped along and found an audience in season four.

Maybe it was the all-star cast? Jason Alexander, Michael Richards, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus, had some previous success. But they weren’t household names in the business.

So what did Jerry Seinfeld do to make his show a 3.1 billion dollar phenomenon?

Closed the door.

In an interview on Alec Baldwin’s podcast, Seinfeld explained what set their show apart. Previously, in the interview, Baldwin asked Seinfeld why he didn’t leverage their success to make more shows. His answer (paraphrased):

“Let me tell you why my tv series in the 90s was so good, besides just an inordinate amount of just pure good fortune. In most tv series, 50 percent of the time is spent working on the show, 50 percent of the time is spent dealing with personality, political, and hierarchical issues of making something. We spent 99.9 percent of our time writing. Me and Larry [David]. The two of us. The door was closed. It’s closed. Somebody calls. We’re not taking the call. We were gonna make this thing funny. That’s why the show was good.”

Seinfeld never wanted to do shows again, because making TV is less art and creation, and all the other politics and network stuff. It’s administration, promotion, and dealing with personalities. Jerry wanted to write and spend the bulk of his energy in the creation process. He wanted to make art.

Seinfeld closed the door.

So many writers and creatives get hung up on the non-art stuff. They want success, want to share their art with the world, but never close the door, and make the stuff.

Weekly, I’m emailed asking how to find more time to write.

My answer: close the door. When will you close the door and make whatever you’re supposed to make?

Stop fiddling with your website and checking your Facebook page. Close the door and write.

Stop reading your reviews and crying in the corner.

Close the door.

Stop worrying about whether people will think your ideas are good, or book will change the world. Close the door and write the dang thing.

Jerry Seinfeld is a comic success and genius. But what sets him apart, and what I can tell from interviews, and hearing from others comics. He has a work ethic like no other. Seinfeld is always creating new material and working on his craft. I once heard he writes new jokes every single day.

Imagine the artist that stopped cuddling with their latest project and made something new. Imagine the pastor who closed the door and gave more focused time and attention to his latest sermon. Not allowing everyone and everything to impede on his time.

The mother who wants to start a blog amid a house of children. What if she closed the door in the evenings and wrote, and wrote, and wrote? What could happen?

Most writers and creatives are looking for some magic pill, marketing formula, or right connections, to get their work in the world.

What we all need more than anything are closed doors.

Butt in chairs and closed doors. Anything that doesn’t help move the creative ball forward is wasted energy.

There will always be a time and place and need for putting on the business and promotion hat.

But the one thing you can do, and must do, and have to do, is close the door, and write.

No one can do it for you.

Who knows, maybe you’ll write the next Seinfeld?

*originally published on Medium.com