There are two contextual ways to describe a story that really works. That kills. But at the end of the day, readers, while experiencing both, really only care about one.
Writers, on the other hand, are obliged to care passionately about both sides of this storytelling coin, because one is the means to the other. In both directions.
The first is the Big Picture of your story, that sense of building interest bordering on addiction as you read, and that feeling of loss when the book is done.
This is the standard readers use to measure – and recommend – a story. A bottom line, thumbs up or down perspective.
Translation: if the ending sucks, the book sucks.
But it isn’t always just about the Big Picture.
Little things count too.
If the little things are good enough, they can survive an ending that the reader finds less than completely satisfying.
This happens all the time, in fact. It’s the bane of A-list authors… they can write killer narrative almost every time, but they can’t deliver a stellar ending every time out.
You and I don’t have that luxury. We need to knock both storytelling perspectives out of the park.
Storytelling is like first dates and job interviews.
Despite a few laughs and surprises, sometimes there isn’t a happy outcome. Big Picture trumps “moments” almost every time.
And yet, moments are what contribute most to the Big Picture. This isn’t a contradiction, it’s a paradox.
Writers need to care desperately – and strategically – about a happy reader outcome. But the enlightened writer knows that the other contextual way to describe a story (see next paragraph) is really the only way to make that happen.
This second way to wrap your head around a story is to consider the reading experience as a series of moments. Moments that grip, surprise, twist, sooth, frighten, titiallate and ultimately satisfy.
When moments are artfully planned and rendered, their sum exceeds their parts.
And when this happens, it’s like discovering that the blind date who knocked your socks off and impressed your mother is also filthy rich.
The publishable writer must consider both, at least in their final, submittable draft. The Big Picture context is often the beginning of the process, but the story won’t really work until you pump it full of moments.
1. The first moment occurs prior to the reader encountering the first page.
You could argue that the author doesn’t have a lot of control over this moment, but I beg to differ.
Unless you are a reviewer or script reader, we get to choose what we read. Often the criteria for our choices consists of reviews, dust jacket copy and the recommendations of others.
And while we don’t get to write our own dust jacket copy or reviews, we are in absolute and final control of both of the empowering perspectives that result in a hooky dust jacket, killer reviews and enthusiastic reader endorsements: that being a compelling Big Picture, rendered with a whole bunch of moments that make the read rewarding.
Readers are equally attracted to the journey and the destination. And they love anticipation.
This before-the-read moment is the product of a whopper of a concept, a compelling hero and a thematic wake-up call, all three combined comprising half of the Six Core Competencies of Successful Storytelling. Big Picture story elements that will make someone else want to rave, even if the writing itself leans to the vanilla side.
Vanilla is perfectly fine if the toppings are heaven. Which means you can get halfway there before you write a word.
2. An addictive hook.
Think of your reader as someone who takes their books to bed. You need to deliver an experience on that first night that is the opposite of buyer’s remorse.
Again, just like a first date. Just sayin’.
You need to make them want to keep reading even though the Ambien is kicking in.
You need to make them think about your book at work the next day.
You need to make them choose your book over the next episode of Survivor.
Yeah, the bar is that high.
3. An early moment of vicarious empathy and recognition.
Somewhere in the first 30 to 50 pages your reader needs to realize they are as intrigued by the characters – often both the protagonist and the bad guy, though the latter may not have shown up yet – as they are by the conceptual “what if?’ hook you’ve sunk into their skull.
The trick here is understanding that the two are interdependent. Because while the character may be off-the-charts cool, they don’t become empathetic until you’ve got them into a pickle that the reader recognizes, fears, dreams of or otherwise relates to.
I’m 100 pages into the latest Franzen (a deconstruction of this #1 bestseller is forthcoming on this site), and while the heroine is compelling, there’s no hook yet. So far this is work to read.
The reader needs somebody – and something – to root for.
4. An unexpected moment when everything changes.
Change can be subtle or it can be a train wreck.
A great story always delivers a major change – think of it as the lighting of a fuse, or if the fuse has been lit earlier, the explosion of the bomb – at about the 20th to 25th percentile mark of the story’s length.
This is called the First Plot Point, and it’s the most important moment of the entire story. It’s when all of the character resonance and backstory collides in context to a plot-centric challenge. At the First Plot Point, the hero is suddenly – or not suddenly; inevitably works just as well – faced with something to do.
This is the moment when the reader realizes they must find out how this will turn out. They’ve already (or should have) realized that the character is interesting. But that’s not enough.
Which is why this moment – the First Plot Point game-changer, or at least game-starter – is #1 within the hierarchy of moments you need to deliver.
5. A moment of fear or stark reality.
After that all-important First Plot Point, when your story is now fully in gear and the reader is fully engaged, you have some pages in which the hero reacts to that sudden – or not – thrust into a new direction in their life.
That reaction is the mission of the chapters that comprise Part 2 (out of four mission/context-driven parts, each of roughly equal length) of your story’s structure.
However, like any good Machiavellian manipulator (synonymous with author), you need to keep everyone – the reader and the hero – on their toes. You need to apply pressure, resurrect fear, dangle the bait, jack up the stakes.
This moment is called a pinch point, at which the antagonistic force of the story reappears on center stage. The goal of the pinch is simple: to remind the reader of what stands in the hero’s way at this juncture.
Actually, you need two of these. The first occurs in the middle of the second quartile of your story, the next in the middle of the third quartile. And because the story has developed significantly between these two points, the second pinch point can and should look quite different than the first.
It should be scarier, clearer, more threatening and ominous.
6. A moment when the curtain parts.
At any given moment there is a defined scope of awareness, both for the characters and for the reader. You are in complete control of both.
At the mid-point of your story, no matter how often or to what degree you’ve surprised and unveiled and twisted your fictional world, you should deliver a whopper of a revelation… in the form of new information.
Information that is new to you and/or the hero, but not necessarily new to the story. This game-changer is about something that’s been in play all along. Think of this as a parting curtain, in which the hero, the reader, or both, are made aware of things that have been exerting force within the story beyond the reader’s awareness.
You have many options in crafting this moment.
Say an unseen killer is stalking our hero. At the mid-point, show who the killer is, but allow the hero to remain in the dark. If the killer is someone who has been close to the hero all along, this is a great way to ratchet up the stakes.
Notice this changes nothing in the story. It just reveals more of the dynamics.
Or, allow the hero to discover who is after them, which empowers and informs her/his actions from that moment forward. Again, the stakes have been raised simply by revealing the heretofore unrevealed.
Sometimes when we discover that singular villains are acting on the behest of large Big Brother-type organizations, everything changes. Remember the film Truman, when Jim Carey (and the audience) finds out his wife is really an actress playing a script in a reality television show? Classic parting of the curtain that isn’t a change in the dynamics of the story.
When such a revelation occurs at the mid-point, you can be sure that your timing of this important narrative shift is supported by the requisite emotional investment and expositional facts, with plenty of time left to continue to change things up.
You can part that curtain of awareness as often as you want, including at the end (provided you don’t toss in a new character or deus ex machina). Just make sure you have a game-changing revelation waiting when the reader reaches the mid-point.
7. A moment when all seems lost.
Wait for it… if you do this to soon you’ll take the air out of your narrative balloon.
Right before the second plot point – which divides the middle of the story from the final quartile that delivers the outcome (or, at about the 75th percentile mark) – there is a great place to pull the rug out. It’s called a lull, and because there are still 70 to 100 pages left, the reader won’t abandon ship, they’ll just stay up later to see what happens.
At this point your hero has tried everything, they’ve conquered their inner bullshit and the exterior foes, but the bad guy is very bad – and resourceful – indeed. In fact, it looks like the bad buy might win the day.
This lull is the antagonist’s moment in the sun, then the outcome isn’t looking so rosy for our hero.
Remember in Tombstone, when Wyatt and his family are riding out of town as those pesky Clantons sit on the porch sipping beer and slinging zingers? A classic lull moment.
Or in The DaVinci Code, when Langdon is staring down the barrel of a gun as the bad guy explains everything before pulling the trigger (a common lull moment).
We know better, but we can’t put the story down until we see the hero’s return. In fact, it is the visceral anticipation of that return that makes an ending juicy and satisfying.
Which renders the lull a strategic necessity.
8. A moment of ultimate resolution, validation or victory.
While there are plenty of structural criteria available to take us to the sequence of scenes that comprise the ending of a story, there is no paradigm or format for the ending itself.
There are a couple of criteria for your ending, however: the hero must be the primary catalyst in the story’s resolution (notice I’m not suggesting that your story end happily, that’s your call), and it must deliver some sense of satisfaction, on some level, to the reader.
The key here is the genius of the machinations that have sucked the reader into an empathetic, supportive mode as they read the denouement, which means they are emotionally on the hook. Putty in your hands.
Make the ending count. This isn’t about tying off loose ends, it’s about delivering a punch to the gut – or a shot of the world’s best narcotic – to the reader’s sense of experience, world view and hope. This is the golden ring of moments.
But you have to earn it through the delivery of a series of powerful — and empowering — moments along the road that got you here.
9. And finally – and this one is actually optional, but wonderful if you can pull it off…
– strive to create a moment when the reader puts their thumb on the page and turns to the back flap of the hard cover to look at your picture.
And ask… damn, who the hell is this person?
Admit it, you’ve done this before. And almost always it’s because you’ve been completely sucked in, rather than completely disgusted.
Blow them away with something you’ve written. A moment you’ve created.
Deliver a memorable, powerful sentence that lands in the wheelhouse of their awareness with weight and dumbstruck awe. A turn of the narrative sequence that is so poetically stunning and unexpected and yet perfectly set-up and brilliantly, even diabolically delicious and confounding.
Every time Nelson Demille has his hero deliver an eviscerating wiseass comment, which he does frequently, I look at his picture and say… dude.
Every now and then in your story, expose yourself as a freaking genius.
Deliver a moment when the reader feels as if you are writing about them.
A moment when you’ve reached out through the pages and touched their heart and mind, and their soul.
A moment that reminds the reader why they love to read.
A tall mountain, that.
But like any mountain, the journey is nothing other than a series of steps.
Or in a story, a series of moments.
What have been some of your favorite moments in the stories you’ve read?
Learn more about story architecture in Larry’s ebook, Story Structure Demystified.
His new book from Writers Digest Books, “Story Engineering: Mastering the Six Core Competencies of Successful Writing,” comes out in February of 2011.
Also, check out this post by writer Walter Dinjos, who has experienced the liberating possibilities of story architecture. He’s just launched his site, so let’s show this writer our support.