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How do you move from an idea to a story?

To have a story — a strong, well-developed story — you need to first focus on seven things.

I call these the “Seven Cs of Story” but that looks bad on a piece of paper so I like the metaphor of the “Seven Seas of Story.” My contention is that these are the most important structural elements of a story, and you should focus on them first, in this order:

  1. Change
  2. Conflict
  3. Characters
  4. Climax
  5. Crisis
  6. Commitment
  7. Catalyst

The Seven Seas (Cs) of Story

How do you move from an idea to a story?

To have a story — a strong, well-developed story — you need to first focus on seven things.

CHANGE. A story is “about” something changing. When somebody asks you what your story is about, what you tell them is the change.

“It’s about how a simple, kind man became a world-class assassin.” 

“It’s about a world where baseball is outlawed and how one woman ended this tyranny.”

“It’s about a grape that becomes a raisin and what he went through to achieve this.” 

Film producers often take new scripts and read the first few pages, then the last few pages. They want to know what changed over the course of the story. Is this change compelling? Would people want to watch a movie about how that change took place? Should they read it?

Imagine yourself as a film producer examining the story idea. What’s on the first and last pages? What’s the core change that your story tells us about? Does it feel compelling?

CONFLICT that produces the change. Stories are driven by conflict, because conflict produces change. Everything in a good story happens because something else happened first.

What connects these events, and helps you select which events to include in a story, is the overarching structuring conflict. What matters in this story is what people did to solve this problem and how their success or failure produced the change. Multiple conflicts may run throughout the story, but one core one provides the spine. 

In the assassin example above, what’s possible problems could our kind man be trying to solve that are so difficult to overcome he can only do so by becoming a world-class assassin? 

CHARACTERS that engage with the conflict. Philosophically, what stories tell us is that change is possible by overcoming conflict, and our actions produce change. In this way, stories are inherently optimistic. For this reason, characters in stories must engage the conflict.

How you populate your story’s world is by thinking through what characters the conflict would most affect. Your main character, the protagonist, must need to overcome the conflict. You may have an antagonist character who works, like her enemy, to keep the conflict going. All significant characters must also have a stake in the conflict. 

Who has the most to lose in this world as a result of this change taking place? Who has the most to gain? Whose lives would be affected by the core conflict force? What will happen to these other people if you heroine doesn’t win? What will happen to her?

CLIMAX that the characters drive the story toward. Poe said you should always know the ending before you begin your story. You don’t need to know this, but it helps to have at least a hazy idea of what might happen near the end. The climax, an event at or near the story’s end, is the moment when the conflict is resolved and stops existing. 

A conflict can be resolved positively (people overcome the problem) or negatively (it becomes clear that they can never overcome the problem, and this is the new normal). Either way, it must get resolved in order for the story to end in a way that satisfies the audience. 

What are some ways your conflict could resolve? What option offers the most excitement?

CRISIS decision and action that causes the climax. The reason it helps to know the climax first is that it is one of four story events that are the skeleton of a story. Whether short (a single page) or long (a 10-novel fantasy series), there are always four core moments in a well-done story, and they are connected. 

Near the end, the main character must have a crisis that pushes them to take a desperate action, which then produces the climax. If the action of the main character does not produce the climax but something else does, this is called a deus ex machina ending and audiences almost always reject this type of ending as unsatisfactory.

Most of writing a story is figuring out how a character gets from point A to point C(risis). How does this person end up in such a terrible position that they have to make such a hard decision? The key to finding a good crisis is determining what the worst possible option would be for this person, and then forcing them to make that choice. The trick here is realizing that there’s nothing more they could do. This is their final attempt. If it fails, they failed.

What has your main character tried to avoid having to do for the whole story, whether they realized it or not? This is the thing they must do, or fail to do, at the crisis moment in order to produce the story’s climax. 

COMMITMENT that begins the path to crisis. In order to get to the point where the character takes the greatest step and does the most extreme thing that they could do to solve their problems, at an earlier point they must have committed to solving this problem. In other words, they must reach a point early on where they have to solve the problem and cannot walk away.

Characters can be committed passively (they discover a bomb will go off and kill them if they don’t defuse the bomb or get out of the locked room) or actively (they choose to rush into the room and save their lover from the bomb). Regardless, even the most passive character must become an active character past this point. By the crisis, they have to take action, or you will end up with a deus ex machina ending that nobody enjoys.

Why does your character have to solve this problem? Why can’t they pass it off to somebody else? If they can, you need to consider if that other person would make a better character, or redesign this character. If they have a real reason to solve this issue, and to commit to doing so, then you’re getting somewhere. 

CATALYST that moves the character toward commitment. The catalyst moment in the story is when the problem arises in the life of the character, when the conflict comes into view.

Story design is easier if you think of characters as lazy. Just like you, they don’t want to solve their problems, they want them to just go away. If they won’t just go away, they then want somebody else to solve them. If nobody else can solve them, they want to just ignore them. If they can’t ignore them (if they become committed), then they will try to smallest thing possible to solve them. When that fails, they will try a slightly larger thing, but the next-smallest thing they could try. Only after everything else fails, after a series of escalating attempts, will they take their most desperate crisis action. 

If you don’t have milk and you want milk, you don’t just go next door and murder your neighbour for milk. First you try to ignore your craving for milk, then you put it on a grocery list and try to wait your thirst out, and if it’s too big you go to the story, and if they have no milk you go to another store, etc.

Think about two things: who is your character and what is their world like? If your milk-thirsty main character is a remorseless serial killer, maybe he would see killing his neighbour as less hassle than going to the store. If his neighbour runs a dairy farm and the nearest store is a five hour’s drive away, maybe he would consider stealing some milk and only accidentally end up killing someone in the course of this.

What would get your lazy character off his seat and into the story? What’s comfortable about their life, and what would unsettle that and throw them off their game enough that they would feel the need to do something? 

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    Author of stranger fiction. Advocate of writing the wrong way. Poet laureate of Hell.