You Can Master Classic Story Structure… A Guest Post by Jerry B. Jenkins

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.

So…

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.

14 Comments

Filed under Guest Bloggers

14 Responses to You Can Master Classic Story Structure… A Guest Post by Jerry B. Jenkins

  1. I Love Lucy as writing class.

    What can I say? I love it.

    • I always loved that response and found it incisive. Interesting too that most comedians make great dramatic actors. Not all, but most. Robin Williams, Jackie Gleason, Mary Tyler Moore, many others…

  2. Robert Jones

    That Koontz book isn’t cheap!

    I first heard of Jerry B. Jenkins from a Sol Stein fiction seminar shortly after Jenkins sold “Twas The Night before,” a very well written Christmas story using Stein’s techniques.

    Stein doesn’t teach an overall view of novel structure, but when it comes to putting characters together and lathering the frosting on the cake of craft, I thought I would take the opportunity to mention another of JBJ’s (and my own) great influences in terms of punctuating craft.

    Great post, Jerry! And a life saving tip on getting your main character in trouble ASAP. The quicker we see signs of trouble, the quicker the reader invests in that vicarious experience. Most of us are problem solvers at heart–or maybe just nosey neighbors who need to spy on the guy next door who is digging a hole in his back yard. We need to know why. We’re suspicious, sometimes even downright creeps when it comes needing to know that hole isn’t being dug too close to the property line…or to bury the wife we start to question in terms of when we saw her last.

    The sooner writers can take advantage of this human weakness, the better. That’s the hook. It’s also what Stein called “Turning on the engine of your story.”

    • Koontz’s website (http://www.deankoontz.com/about-dean/collectors/) says he’s working on an updated version of How to Write Bestselling Fiction which was itself an update of his 1972 book Writing Popular Fiction.

      So maybe we’re all just inches away from the new millennium version.

    • That’s so true, Robert, and well said, though in the interest of full disclosure I had just sold ‘Twas the Night Before when I showed up for Sol’s Fiction Weekend. I sure learned a lot from him then and since, however. I still keep up with him a bit.

      • Robert Jones

        I’ve lost touch with Sol. His son, David tells me he’s had a few health issues…which greatly saddened me. However, I’m still learning from his programs and books any time I open them. And the days of his mentorship will always be held in highest regard. Wish they would update some of those programs. I keep my old computer just to be able to access Fictionmaster and First-Aid For Writers 🙂

  3. Christine Lind

    The first thing Larry advised me to do was to get my heroine in trouble. So I did. And not only did it set my novel in motion, but it “thickened” the plot. (I just read) in Jodie Renner’s new book, “Captivate Your Readers,” she writes: “Give us a character in motion, then reveal her little by little, just like in real life.” Your caution in point #2, “that the self-generated complications must make sense,” goes along with that advice. It reminds me of how important it is to keep integrity uppermost in that regard while actually making the novel easier to write at the same time.

  4. Excellent tips! I love your blog, Jerry. Just signed up for the resource download and am now following your blog. Looking forward to future posts. You’ll be “hearing” from me over there. Till then!

  5. Excellent tips! I love your blog, Jerry. Just signed up for the resource download and am now following your blog. Looking forward to future posts. You’ll be “hearing” from me over there. Thanks for the introduction, Larry!

  6. Pingback: Weekend Edition – You Are Not Alone Plus Good Reads and Writing Tips | Live to Write – Write to Live