Yes, THAT Jerry B. Jenkins. Author of 21 NY Times bestsellers. Over 70 million copies sold. Co-Author of the iconic Left Behind series.
This is as high on the A-list as it gets.
When a guy like Jerry B. Jenkins talks, we should sit up straight and listen. Take notes. Memorize.
This post was written by Jerry exclusively for Storyfix because we share a key writing value: the importance and nature of story structure.
A guest post by Jerry B. Jenkins
Whether they’re wannabes, newbies, or veterans, whether they’re outliners or pantsers (writing by the seat of their pants—putting interesting people in difficult situations and writing to find out what happens, as Stephen King puts it), most tend to ask the same question wherever I speak on fiction writing:
Is there a formula, a structure, for fiction writing?
You’ll be happy to know there is, and that though it has the word classic in it, it’s not all that complicated and can be easily mastered. That won’t in itself make you a better writer, but it can sure make your job easier and more fun.
For sure, you ignore it at your peril.
I discovered it decades ago in How to Write Bestselling Fiction by Dean Koontz, and at the risk of hyperbole, it changed my life. I wanted to write bestselling fiction, so what better book, right? (Unfortunately, the book is out of print and has not been reprinted, so only rare, very expensive copies still exist.)
Fast-forward to the present and I have written more than 185 books, over two-thirds of those novels, have seen 21 of my titles reach The New York Times bestseller list, and have sold 70 million copies.
You don’t need any more evidence that Koontz’s formula works.
With full credit to him, it goes like this:
1. Plunge your main character into terrible trouble as soon as possible.
2. Everything he does to make things better makes them worse.
3. Make sure the last worst thing looks insurmountable.
4. Then your hero succeeds by taking action, based on what he has learned about himself in the midst of all the challenges.
Notes on the Points Above
1. “Terrible trouble” means something different for every genre. For a pot-boiling detective thriller, your hero might have a gun to his head or a contract out on his life. For a British cozy, your heroine might find herself falling in love with a suitor so far beneath her station that she might lose her place within her family. Whatever terrible trouble you choose, be sure it appears overwhelming to your lead character from page one. And remember that readers won’t engage just because of the trouble unless they are made to care about the characters.
2. These self-generated complications must make sense. If your hero’s terrible trouble is that she is being pursued by an attacker, it makes sense that she might smack into someone on the street or even get hit by a car. It stretches credibility for her to run into an old flame, however.
3. Don’t shortchange your reader on the final, worst complication. Even you should be wondering as you’re writing that scene how you’re going to get your character out of it. The more you invest in the all-is-lost scene, the better the payoff when your character triumphs in the end.
4. One coincidence is plenty for a 400- to 500-page manuscript, and maybe even one is too many. So avoid them for pivotal scenes like number 2 above and certainly for the grand finale. You also want to avoid the dreaded deus ex machina, where God saves the day.
As a person of faith, I happen to believe God answers prayer and still acts in supernatural ways sometimes, but that’s the stuff for nonfiction books. In a novel, we want to see character arc, the hero growing from point A to point B, using what he’s learned from his trials and taking action to get himself out of trouble.
One of my students years ago interrupted my class on this subject and announced, “You just described the formula for I Love Lucy!”
I couldn’t argue. Every week, Lucy got herself into some crazy predicament, and everything she did to try to fix it made it worse until things looked so hopeless that she had “some ‘splainin’ to do” to Ricky. And then she figured it and took action, roll credits.
So Dean Koontz’s classic story structure worked even for 50s TV sitcoms.
The Most Common Error?
Failing to plunge your main character into terrible trouble as soon as possible.
Get that character on stage, make me care, and plunge.
Jerry B. Jenkins shares advanced writing tips with aspiring authors at JerryJenkins.com. He is a 21-Time New York Times bestselling novelist (The Left Behind series) and biographer (Hank Aaron, Walter Payton, Billy Graham, and many others) with sales of over 70 million copies. Click HERE to discover his five most crucial tips for anyone who wants to write a book—free.