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Storytelling Fundamentals

Stories have a beginning, a middle and an end. Makes sense, right? Another way of saying that is that stories have set up, conflict and resolution. Yet another way to say it is that stories have STASIS, chaos, NEW STASIS. There is a situation and something upsets the apple cart. Or a number of somethings. So we have three acts. But that also applies to each chapter. Beginning, middle, end. Set up, conflict, new conflict. Chapters connect like dominoes. 
The three-act structure accordions in and out – it reflects the whole story, it reflects, in a smaller iteration, a chapter, and it is even reflected in a scene. I like to imagine “movie guy voice,” describing a story: WHEN (first act): An interesting, unique, flawed person has an unexpected problem (or opportunity) THEN (second act): our character faces obstacles and challenges as they try to solve the problem or get the opportunity UNTIL (third act:) The main character faces an unexpected situation – a dark night of the soul – a huge challenge. This is the make-or-break moment. 
CHALLENGE: Can you describe the WHEN/THEN/UNTIL of your story? 
BONUS CHALLENGE: Can you write that description in fewer than 100 words? 



In real life, most of us try to avoid problems. Fiction characters cannot. Because that’s what makes stories interesting. In our ordinary lives, we are all unique and complex. So are fictional characters. As you create your character, think about ways to make them memorable, flawed, vulnerable and relatable. Three-dimensional characters are important in order for your story to work. Even if you have most amazing, unusual premise ever, if readers can’t connect to your character, the story will fall flat.

There is no one way to create memorable, believable characters; writers have different approaches and instincts. But many writers find it helpful to think of characters as having a want, a need and a flaw.

The WANT should be attainable, achievable and evident at the beginning of the story. To solve a mystery. To get that job or pay raise. To win the person of your dreams. To be rich.

The NEED is counter to the want. I’ll paraphrase the Rolling Stones: “You can’t always get what you want until you get what you need.” It is this need, this untended and unrealized wound that will prevent the main character from achieving their want – until they deal with their need.

The FLAW is the result of the collision of the want and the unconscious need of your character. This is how your character acts out, in other words because they aren’t getting what they want.

What will help the character learn, grow and overcome their inner wound and flaw? The obstacles in your story, which are carefully orchestrated by you, the writer, to put the main character on a journey of change, otherwise known as a character arc.

CHALLENGE: Can you describe your character’s WANT, NEED and FLAW?

BONUS CHALLENGE: Can you write that description in fewer than 100 words? 


Storytelling is about creating worlds and situations that make us curious. What will happen? Humans are terrible curious beings and certainly, as a writer, the goal is to weave your story so deftly, that your reader cannot put your book down. They simply MUST turn the page or finish the chapter.  A solid structure is an important aspect of keeping those pages turning, and great characters are too. But – what’s at stake?

The stakes in a story refer to what might happen – or NOT happen as a result of the obstacles your character faces and the choices they make. Another way to look at stakes is – why should your reader care? What is hanging in the balance? What job might be lost or heart might be broken or planet might NOT be saved if the story doesn’t turn out the way your reader wants it to? 

The ticking clock is simply another aspect of stakes. What’s the deadline for this wonderful/terrible outcome to happen or not happen? Before the character’s 30th birthday party? What is the rush? What is putting your main character under pressure? 

CHALLENGE: Can you describe what is at stake for your main character? 
BONUS CHALLENGE: What is the ticking clock? Can you describe both in fewer than 100 words? 


Meet your new best friend.

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