Thursday, September 30, 2010

Stage 1 : Story Concept : Begin with the End in Mind

By C.L. Phillips

"Knock, knock."

"Who's there?"

"Your subconscious?"

"What do you want?"

"I've got a story idea for you."

Ah, if it were only so easy, right?  Ever have an idea pop into your head, so crystal clear that you start righting, only to finish 80,000 words later?  No, me neither.  I carve big lumps of word stone into story statues.  Clink.  Clink.  I chisel each word into existence by looking at both the positive and negative space.  What is said.  What is not.

Last night, I listened to Gary Provost, founder of the Writer's Retreat Workshop.  Again.  And again.  Gary has a beautiful way of distilling storytelling down to the emotional core.  Something happens to the hero of this story, something significant.  Because it happened, the hero wants something, badly, a prize or a goal.  The hero devises a plan of action, moving closer to the prize.  Forces oppose the hero at every turn.  As the plan of action unfolds, the stakes rise.  Moving toward the goal takes every bit of cunning, strength, and luck the hero can muster.  Still, it's not enough.  The hero hits bottom, emotionally, physically, mentally.  At this bleakest moment, the hero makes a decision to solider on.  The hero learns a lesson, gains more faith, changes internally.  As the hero continues, he's faced with a decision point.  He can gain his prize, his goal, but only if he gives up something he truly loves.  This journey satisfies a need or fills a hole in the hero's psyche.

Every story has each of these elements:

Inciting IncidentStory trigger ; what happens to hero
POV Character GoalPrize or Goal
StrategyPlan of Action
ConflictOpposing Forces
Rising Stakes What happens during the journey to make this more important, more meaningful to the hero - internally? Externally?
Bleakest MomentHero is at the lowest point; opposing forces are winning
LessonWhat does the hero learn? How does he change?
Decision PointWhat does the hero give up in exchange for the prize or goal? What is the cost?
HoleWhat need or emotional hole is filled by the decision? The need was there before the story began, and is the backstory.

What need or emotional hole is filled by the decision? The need was there before the story began, and is the backstory.

Then it hit me.  When you can define these elements, you've got your story idea defined.  One table.  With a quick glance, you see, feel and know what happens in a story.  Imagine what it could do for a synopsis or query letter.  You could boil 80,000 words down to a single crisp paragraph.

I pulled out my dog-eared copy of Lincoln Lawyer by Michael Connelly, determined to find each of these elements in the story.  I did.  That wasn't the exciting part.  The exciting part was when I found the main character, Mickey Haller saying, "I had come four hundred miles for five minutes but those minutes were devastating.  I thin the lowest point of my life and professional career came an hour later..."

There it was, the Bleakest Moment, chiseled out of the story stone, exposed for anyone to see.

Gary Provost said, "Do this analysis on fifty books, and then you'll be able to plot."

Sisters-in-Crime is a supportive community for emerging writers.  Let's take this blog one step further.  Join me on this journey of analyzing fifty best sellers.  One down, The Lincoln Lawyer, forty nine to go.

Copy the table, grab your favorite best seller (it can even be your own), and post your analysis in the comments for this blog post.  Let's see if we can hit fifty in two days.

Write on!
C.L. Phillips writes mystery novels while nestled under a hundred-year live oak tree in downtown Austin. Except in August. C.L writes about the the gap between what people want and what they actually do. Broccoli or chocolate chip cookies, anyone? Check out her web site: or find her onTwitter: @clphillips787


C.L. Phillips said...

If you want to see my analysis of Michael Connelly's Lincoln Lawyer, head over to

That's the place where I put all the extra words from my blog posts. Sometimes 500 words isn't enough. :)

Join the fun and post your analysis of one of your novels or one you love to read here.


Norma Huss said...

I've just applied this analysis to my current WIP and discovered... oh, no! I don't have something that my protagonist must give up to attain her goal!

So, I've taken an hour to figure it out. I knew I needed more in my story, but I didn't know what. Thank you!

E. B. Davis said...

I always know the end. It's the beginning that gives me the problem. Where to start, when I know the backstory, but also know I can't backstory dump into my beginning.
I recent wrote a short and realized that my third paragraph from the start, should have been the third paragraph to the end. Now isn't that a** backward. Typical me!

Marcia Talley said...

At the Sewanee Writers' Conference, I remember faculty throwing out the first several pages, sometimes chapters, of a participant's manuscript, stabbing a finger at what was left and saying, "The story begins here." I often compare starting a story to meeting someone for the first time. You don't begin with, "Hello, I was born in a log cabin in Kansas in the early fifties, moved to California with my father when I was twelve after my mother ran off with an Amway salesman ..." No, we learn those things gradually about a person. Back story should unfold like that.

Ellis Vidler said...

That's such a clear table. Thanks for posting it. Now, if I can just follow it with my own story. :-)

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the concrete, executable advice. I have sat doodling all afternoon with my new WIP trying to figure this out. I am headed to my bookcase to pull my favorite books so I can outline them. I always enjoy your blog posts.

Eileen said...

I needed this. Thank you. Maybe now I can get back to my book and fix the story.

At least the tools are here. The rest...well, we'll see!