I’m a writer. And I know anybody can become a writer now, so calling yourself a writer doesn’t really mean anything these days, but I’m, like, a professional writer. Been doing it for a paycheck since I was 18. Unlikely to switch to carpentry anytime soon.
And that’s nothing to brag about, really – some people build bridges and fight tigers for a living. Those are the real heroes. Those bridge building…tiger fighting madmen.
The reason I bring up me being a writer, however, is because I’ve self-published two books. And, regardless of what the world thought of them and how many millions of dollars they each earned me, I learned some important lessons writing them.
Lessons like: “You think you’re smarter than you really are“, and “People seemed to like zombies and sex better than whatever Nails In The Sky was, didn’t they?“
One of the biggest lessons I learned was that I needed to learn how to structure a story. No matter how good you think you are, you cannot try to write a story without the right structures in place to hold it up. It will fall apart and people will be confused and it will be bad.
In today’s article, I’m going to outline my favorite story structure guide from one of my favorite writers, Dan Harmon of Rick and Morty and Community fame. The story circle is an eight-step guide, and we’ll be covering each step in a new blog post over the next few weeks.
For those of you curious, before we start, the steps are as follows:
- You (the reader inhabits a character in a zone of comfort)
- Need (the protagonist is yearning for something)
- Go (they move into an unfamiliar situation)
- Search (they spend time adapting to this change)
- Get (they receive the thing they initially wanted)
- Pay (something is taken in return)
- Return (they make their way back to the familiar situation)
- Change (they have changed and can tackle their old problems)
So, without any further delay, let’s get started, shall we?
Story Circle Time: Start With “You”
When a child asks you to tell them a story, it’s serious business. This is the most unforgiving audience there is, and you have to get it right. The best place to start is to tell them about people they could or would like to be. Doctors, adventurers, genius playboy philanthropists (to quote an old friend). The story has to be about them, even if it’s only about something they’d like to be one day. And it’s the same with adults.
Start your story circle with a protagonist. No, I don’t mean start your first line with “THIS IS CYNTHIA, SHE’S THE HERO, THANKS FOR YOUR TIME!‘ You can take a minute to get to Cynthia. Just keep her in your sites, so to speak. Show us the birds outside Cynthia’s bedroom window that distract her while she’s trying to study. Or pull out and show her best friend walking to her house for a study session, passing by the birds on her way in.
You can take your time. But steer the ship towards Cynthia. Cynthia’s our girl, and we only just got to this party, so we need someone to show us around. The reader is waiting for a sign that they’ve got someone to hitch their buggy to.
Now, Cynthia could be Steve, or she could be Aunt Pattie down the street. She could also be a whole group of people, like the Lundsen family who just moved in and a ghost’s haunting their house.
She might even be not a person at all. Maybe instead of Cynthia, you tell an entire story about a washing machine close to breaking down finally after years of faithful service. Is it going to be the best story ever? Definitely not. But if you can give us a reason to follow one thing around for a little bit, you’ve started writing a story, friend.
Lastly, this character has to be in a place of comfort. They might not be comfortable, but they are somewhere they know and are somewhat used to. Life has not begun to accelerate in any direction for them, yet.
The Story Circle: Why We Bother?
Books are odd things. We pick up these bound collections of paper and read symbols on them that conjure up images in our heads of dragons or romances or Donald Trump being all businessmanny. That’s the magic of them, but we only discover that magic once we’ve started reading.
When you first start reading any book, you’ve got no idea what’s happening. You’re floating freely. You don’t know who you’re going to be following around or why. Maybe the book opens on a giant battle, or on a lonely space station. Maybe the author spends three pages just set dressing a city devastated by a plague. And they can do that – linger and wait and exploit the situation for a while. But eventually, the reader’s going to need to become someone. That’s where knowing how to structure a story.
To quote Dan Harmon, remember: “If we are not inside a character, then we are not inside the story.”
Luckily for us, putting the audience into a character is actually pretty easy. Just show them a character, and they’ll pretty much instantly imprint on that character. Show them a kid playing with rubber vomit, and they’ll become that kid. Show them a raccoon or a murderer or a talking Lego brick, and the same thing happens.
Just imagine you’re directing a movie, pick a spot to fade in on a character, and we’ll become that person until someone better shows up.
How To Structure A Story: A Few Last Points
Of course, not every story is going to be lucky enough to have one clear-cut protagonist. Sometimes there are people to choose from, and when this happens, the audience will always side with whoever they relate to.
If two characters are fighting, we’ll side with the one who’s most outmatched, nine times out of ten. Pity is actually the catalyst for more of this sort of side-choosing than not.
Also, if you’re going to be modern and jump from character to character in the beginning, pick a lane before things get uninteresting. By a quarter of the way into your book, you need to have a focal character, or your audience is unlikely to stick around.
Start At The Beginning
It sounds dumb, but reading a story is a lot like being on a ride at Disney. We get into the Pirates of the Caribbean seats, and go for a long, winding trip through all sorts of wacky adventures with dirty, weirdly lifelike pirate people.
If we’re not lucky, we don’t connect with the ride and we end up drowning our sadness in giant turkey legs the rest of the afternoon. But, if we hit that sweet spot and make that connection, the ride turns into an experience and everything becomes pure magic.
But it all starts with feeling like this is about you. Good storytelling does that – it starts out by putting the person in the driver’s seat so they get the best view of everything being about them.
My two books are “Bay City Monsters” and “Nails in the Sky“. What did you think of today’s first look at the Story Circle and how to structure a story? Join us again next week for a look at step two: Need.