It takes much more than wild courage
Or you’ll hit just the tattered clouds
You must have just the right bullets
And the first one’s always free
Just the Right Bullets—Tom Waits
We all search for that perfect story structure to follow. Whether it be Joseph Campbell, Lajos Egri, or Syd Field. Examples abound. Yet as a novelist, I find many of these boil the process down to too simple a formula, one which never leads to a satisfying narrative. It almost makes one want to open up a document and just start writing, if only to see where the story goes.
Structure does help. The world is littered with stories that have amazing ideas, only to fall apart in execution. The tension doesn’t hold all the way through or the ending didn’t fit the premise. One structure that I’ve had a great deal of success with is Goal, Conflict, Disaster.
This method is the brain child of Randy Ingermanson. You can visit the website for the full method (which can be quite analytical). The skinny is this: The author must always throw obstacles at the protagonist. And this conflict must intensity before it’s resolved.
I love this method for the scene level writing. It forces me to start each chapter or scene with some sort of goal. A character who wants something is motivated and forward moving. It’s always important to make the character active. He or she should act upon the world rather than sit back and have the world act on him or her. Giving the protagonist a strong achievable goal helps tremendously.
This goal can be minor (something resolved in that chapter) or long term (over the course of the novel). Either way, some conflict (be it person, event, or personal impediment) will block the character. Instead of surpassing this conflict and achieving the goal, the character is faced with disaster.
This technique works well when teaching kids about writing. I always lay it out like this:
A boy wants to avoid a bully at school. The bully happens to be absent that day. The boy is happy. End of story.
Yeah, pretty boring. There’s no conflict or tension. The character achieves the goal too easily.
A boy wants to avoid a bully at school. He walks a new way to class, but encounters the bully. The boy stands up to the bully and the bully backs down. The boy is happy. The end.
This one is better. It has some tension, but it doesn’t last.
A boy manages to avoid a bully all day, dodging him in hallways and hiding in the bathroom. Finally, he encounters the bully at lunch. He gains his nerve and stands up to the bully, but then, he slips and rips his pants. Now everyone can see his underwear. The whole school is laughing.
This had tension that escalates. Plus, it doesn’t have an ending, because now the protagonist must deal with this new disaster of school embarrassment.
The Goal, Conflict, Disaster technique is the simplest method I know that can deliver solid scenes. The only complaint I’ve seen is that the narrative can seem too fast paced. The foot is always on the accelerator. True, if you read Ingermanson’s article, you’ll see that he follows this technique (called a scene) with what he calls a sequel (Reaction, Dilemma, Decision). Yet the power of his method lies in the scene.
In part two, we’ll examine Dan Harman’s circular story structure.