See how much fun Amy’s having? She’s not drowning in index cards, killing herself with character charts, or trying to figure out what constitutes a viable chapter break. Her story outline hasn’t become so time consuming and labyrinthian that she’s fallen into a deep depression. She’s DRINKING! Taking a moment for herself (with cute Bill Heder in the background.)
She broke her story!
Jule Selbo, in her fantastic book, Screenplay: Building Story Through Character, has mapped out a simple way to create story structure that’s based entirely on your main character’s goal. This method works equally well for novels and screenplays. Here’s how to use her Eleven Step Story model to break your story quickly and cleanly so you too, like Amy, can have a cocktail.
First, put all the other work you’ve done on your outline out of your mind. Be open to new thoughts… You’re starting fresh.
Before you begin, write down how your character transforms in the story. Who is she at the beginning? How is she different at the end? What does she WANT and WHY? (In other words, what’s her specific immediate goal in the story and the emotional need underneath this goal?) Once you’ve nailed down these key questions, set the timer on your phone for 60 minutes.
Go! Describe through ACTION, what your character could do in each of the following 11 Steps. Don’t think too hard. Write as quickly as you can.
(Again, this story model works for both fiction and screenplays, but I’ve added act breaks for those of you writing the latter.)
1. Character’s Overall Want/Need and Why— What does your character do at the very beginning of the story to establish her specific goal and the emotional need underneath it?
2. Character Logically Goes For It—What action steps does she take to achieve her goal?
3. Character Is Denied—What happens to STOP her?
4. Character Gets a Second Opportunity to Achieve The Overall Want—What happens that gives her a DIFFERENT way to achieve the goal?
5. Conflicts About Taking Advantage of the Second Opportunity—What makes this alternative path dangerous (emotionally, physically or morally?)
6. Character Decides to Go for it—She wants to achieve the goal so badly she goes for it anyway.
7. All Goes Well—How does it go swimmingly?
8. All Falls Apart—How do things start to unravel? This should be a series of events that lead to a low point for your main character. Escalate it down as far as you can. How can she lose everything? It appears she’ll NEVER achieve her goal.
9. Crisis—What DECISION must she make? Does she decide to go for it one more time? Does she try a new strategy?
10. Climax—How can she race to her final attempt? What’s at stake? Who tries to stop her? How does she have to TRANSFORM to get what she wants?
11. Truth Comes Out to Make Things Right—What does she discover about herself or the world? What does she do to reveal that she’s different? What’s her new normal?
The beauty of this structural model is that it keeps you focused on the character’s goal, which is the engine that drives the narrative forward. If you design an antagonist with a goal in direct opposition to what your hero wants, you’ve got all the secret ingredients to a simple story structure with rising conflict.
Take action! Do the above exercise. Figure out how your character changes, then race through the Eleven Steps with the primary focus on your protagonist taking action to achieve his or her goal, hitting obstacles, and having to change to succeed.
When the timer goes off, pull out a brown paper bag, wrap it around a Schlitz Malt Liquor tall, and have at it. Your structure may not be polished, but there are action bricks here you can build on.
P.S. If you find this method helpful, Jule’s book is terrific and offers up other great advice about creating strong characters, writing dialogue and revealing exposition.
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