Story Structure: The Basics

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After having someone I respect review my query letter and synopsis, that person told me my story wasn’t ready.  Basically, the reason I’m having such a hard time trying to summarize it into a salable product is that I don’t have a handle on all the story elements.

I learned the three act story structure for fiction.  It’s quite simple and seems to work for other folks, and I thought it had worked for me, too.  But I think I got it all confused because I went for two things:

  • an overall story arc that would encompass seven books worth of material, and
  • a finite story arc that only addressed one small part of the overall story arc

Weaving those two together might have gotten me all confused.  So, I thought I would review my class materials.  Then I thought, hey, maybe you all might benefit from it, too.

I can’t cover everything in this one blog post, seeing as I learned all this material in the course of a 12 week, online class (and that was an accelerated course!), but I’ll try to summarize and use Devil’s Blood as an example in this post and a followup post.  That way, maybe I can pinpoint where I went wrong.  Or, at least, find out where I might have consciously deviated from it and then promptly forgot that I did that.

In this post, we’ll explore the basic building blocks of every story.  In the next, I’ll go through the three acts.

The basics

All stories have to have some basic underlying principle(s) that guide them.  This is the reason you decided to write the book or story in the first place, and that’s your passion.

Are you a staunch environmentalist?  Or maybe doctor who believes medical care should be free for all?  Or adamant that life should be fair even though it isn’t?  Whatever your passion is, that is what drives your story, the reason you want to tell your story.

My passion is religious tolerance.  I deeply wish that folks would just get along, and truly hope that we learn to honestly tolerate differing beliefs, including a non-belief.

There’s my passion: religious tolerance or intolerance or however you want to look at it.  So a big part of me setting my story smack dab in the middle of one of the hugest religious persecutions in history was because it would be ripe for conflict and for exploring that basic passion of mine without it being obvious that is what I’m after (I’m sure it is obvious, but I was trying to make it not-obvious).

However, remember, I’m doing two things at once, a sort-of stand-alone novel and a seven book series with its own arc.  Religious tolerance is my overall passion, but I got plenty of other things I’m passionate about and I focused on another passion for Devil’s Blood: women rights/persecution in the vehicle of vanity – one of the seven deadly sins.

I’ll explain that later.  Maybe.

Anyway, your passion leads to a theme for your story.  A theme is the message you want your readers to walk away with after reading your story.  For my entire seven book arc, my theme is: love conquers bigotry.  For Devil’s Blood, the overall theme is: every life is precious, even a little girls’ (which, in the middle ages, wasn’t valued very much at all).

Now, here comes the hard part – my instructor actually wrote that in the chapter materials.  I’ll quote him directly on this so that I get it right.

Once you’ve decided on a theme, you must create a character whose emotional journey will convey that theme. In short, theme leads to character.

Yikes!  So, my character, Andreas Daniel Cruz, must not only show an emotional journey that will take him to accept the religion that is all around him (he’s an atheist, I’m an atheist, yes, there’s a lot of me in Andreas), but he’s also got to actually walk his talk and see girls (the lowest rung on the human totem pole) as equals and worthy of his effort to save them.  So, instead of the theme leading to one major character flaw, poor Andreas has to have not only two, but seven or eight character flaws that he has to over come – one for each book!

What the heck was I thinking?

Oh well, we’ll just charge on through and come to the natural conclusion of all the basics for story structure and that’s premise.  Your character flaw, theme and passion lead to a basic story premise.  My instructor liked to present the premise in a “What if” statement.  So, here are my premises for the overall series and for Devil’s Blood:

  1. What if a 15th century atheist must choose between his principles or his love for a religious nut (and bat-woman, yes, Lorena is a fervent Catholic)? (overall premise – argh, I just gave away that they’ll eventually get together, oh well)
  2. What if a 15th century man has to choose between reaching his family or the life of one, inconsequential girl. (Devil’s Blood premise)

And that’s it.  With those basic elements, you should (should) be able to write a dramatic story that will carry the reader on a journey that will, if not enlighten, at least entertain.  That’s the idea.

Does that make sense?  Do you think my premise(s) make sense?  Do I need to start all over?

Next post: The Three-Act Structure.

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