Chapter 3: Finish Your First Story

The professionals sneer at “manufactured stories”. Except that until you get a few stories under your belt, it’s hard to develop a personal style. If, by following these steps, you churn out a mere “manufactured” story take heart: this is just your starter story.  Leave the Life-Defining Work of Brilliance for your second attempt.

Here’s how I created my prototype. Once I had a fledging story containing an introduction, climax, and resolution, I stripped away the crap and built a plot: the backbone.

Eliminate the wobbly bits

Identify “your darlings”: the idiosyncrasies and campy kitsch that don’t add to the plot. Cut them out of your story and paste them into a separate document; you may add them back later, when you’re more fully developing the story, or they may serve as inspiration or clues to truths about your characters.


I maintained documents containing such extravagances as romance, bon mots (those cleaver quips you can’t live without), extraneous characters, scenes lacking conflict, and alternate story lines; they were lifesavers (and in the right voice) when I was fresh out of inspiration.

Streamline the moving parts

Minimize the number of characters. Start with just the key figures. Move extraneous characters to the stockpile. Check your favorite stories and you’ll notice even in stories that seem to have a cast of thousands, we really only hear from four or five characters.

Remove the adverbs

Keep very few; ballpark, one or two per page. (If you’re using Word, perform a find on “ly” and strip ’em out). There’s something lazy about using adverbs. Replace them by showing what you mean (Google “show don’t tell” – you’ll find boatloads of explanations. Find one that speaks to you).

Develop the characters

You’ll need to know all of these about your hero (if that poses a problem, you might find this discussion interesting):

  • fear: something your hero avoids that can provide a great source of conflict
  • frustration: something your hero avoids and is often found in the partner or love interest
  • perceived (false) flaw in self: like, “too soft a heart”
  • true flaw in self: like, “too soft a head”
  • perceived (false) strength: like, physical strength
  • true strength: like, genuine humility and ability to apologize
  • source of a moral compass
  • goal/source of pride
  • perceived challenge (usually a threat to goal/source of pride)
  • genuine challenge  (usually a threat to source of a moral compass)
  • true love (be creative – it could be a car)
  • buddy (be creative – pet, grandma, clone)

Yes, and hair length and color. A cliché so important to readers.

Develop the Setting

Where, what time of year, what year. Country, era, level of cynicism (Washington, DC land of power or scum-caked streets of misery?) Where exactly does your hero reside? (Hint: Google Earth is your friend).

Develop the Plot

List what happens, encounter by encounter, throughout the story. I’m talking about what many methodologies refer to as “beats.”

Inject conflict

Agreement is boring: stories are about conflict. Find a way for every beat, every encounter, to showcase conflict; if it doesn’t, remove it.

Identify the challenge

There are two main events in the stock story (watch a TV episode): the first attempt at meeting the challenge, which fails, due to your hero’s attempt to capitalize on a false strength.

Identify the climax

The failure escalates conflict, jeopardizing absolutely everything. What is the end of your hero’s  world? Death of family? Lost forever in space? Remarried to the spiteful ex? There’s your climax.

  • Your hero succeeds by turning a perceived flaw into a strength.
  • The climax must wrench and destroy your hero’s world.

Develop the Resolution

Your hero is destroyed – change is never an easy path. Show, don’t tell the recovery.

Next Steps

You should be left with an introduction, mounting tension as conflicts accumulate, a challenge (failure), climax (victory), and a resolution. That’s a prototype.

Now you can decorate it: spice and dress the meat & potatoes; add vases and rugs to your bare-bones room; paint and trim out the car’s chassis; add garland, tinsel, and a skirt to the Christmas/Festivus tree.

Hone your story using other resources to better develop the dialog, show-don’t-tell, and more necessities of the métier because this is our point of departure.  Bonne chance, mon ami.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *