by Laura Baker
There are two parts to a story: story and character. They depend on each other to make the story whole. But let’s depart from the usual and take a different look at the story and the character.
At the heart of every story is a character who faces a struggle and makes a discovery.
The STRUGGLE is the plot, the outside forces, the story arc.
The DISCOVERY (or insight) is the character arc.
The first is what your story is about: plot, struggle, story arc, what your character has to do.
The second is what your story is REALLY about: character and the insight.
In the following examples, I’ve broken down the Struggle and the Insight from real movies. See if you can guess what the movies are:
My story is about a girl trapped in a terrible situation who dreams of a better life, and about the obstacles she has to overcome.
What my story is really about is how risking what is safe rewards us with the power of our true self.
My story is about a selfish, greedy guy who will do anything to save his business.
What my story is really about is that our riches are measured in our willingness to sacrifice for love (or for others).
My story is about corruption and violence in a police force—the good guys are the bad guys.
What my story is really about is “what constitutes justice?” What are we willing to do to get justice?
My story is about an introverted woman who has to come to the rescue of her sister. Lots of suspense, twists and turns, until she finally beats the bad guys and saves her sister.
What my story is really about is the story of a woman longing for a hero in her life, but uncertain of her own worthiness to be loved, who in the end realizes she can be her own hero—and thus is rewarded with true love.
Now, the movies I used for these examples:
- LA Confidential
- Romancing the Stone
But the first example could also be from While You Were Sleeping, and the second example could also be from Star Wars.
The First Step
The first step toward defining the struggle and the insight is in the inciting incident. So let’s look at where I begin my Discovering Story Magic class, with the Inciting Incident.
The Inciting Incident is possibly the most important scene in your book. It must have drama. It must have emotion. The Inciting Incident is the set-up for your whole story.
Within the Inciting Incident, we see the character thrown off balance (which means we actually understand that this event throws the character off-balance), we see the struggle of the character to regain balance (so we know exactly what the character falls back on in her emotional make-up when things don’t go as planned), and we get at least a hint of the antagonist (which foreshadows the crisis, black moment and realization for the protagonist).
Planning Your Inciting Incident
With so much riding on the Inciting Incident, how in the world do we figure it out?
Ask yourself: if Event X does NOT happen, would my character still begin on a road to change? If the answer is no, then Event X is the Inciting Incident.
Here is a planning cheat sheet:
forcing a choice by ______________(character)
who will have to face _______________(their flaw and their fear).
This template forces you to consider:
- Who is your story about?
- What throws the character off balance?
- What will the character have to face and change at the end?
- The Inciting Incident is not a random event. It must have meaning to the rest of the story. It can seem random—a car accident, a murder, catching a fiancé in bed with your best friend—but this event rocks the world of your protagonist.
And possibly the most important element:
- The Inciting Incidentis NOT the event. It is a CHOICE your character makes within the event that changes their life’s path.
So now look again at the template:
The protagonist makes a choice
And this INCITES the story.
Including the Antagonist in the Inciting Incident
Ideally, you want the event and the choice to include the antagonist because in this way you are introducing the emotional force that’s going to be brought to bear on the protagonist.
Here are examples of Inciting Incidents from some movies:
Jerry Maguire has a twinge of conscience about his job, writes the Mission Statement and is fired. He then asks who will come with him. Dorothy goes with him.
An Unfinished Life
Einar’s daughter-in-law, who he blames for his son’s death, shows up with a granddaughter he didn’t know he had and asks for a place to stay. He turns them away until he is introduced to his granddaughter. He lets them stay but has no use for them being there.
Good Will Hunting
Will Hunting has to make a deal with the math professor in order to get out of jail, which includes working with the professor and seeing a professional therapist.
Two More Templates
Remember, the Struggle is the plot, the outside forces, the story arc. The Insight is the character arc.
Here are two more templates for you.
The first part is the STRUGGLE:
MY STORY IS ABOUT______________
Who must _____________________
In order to ______________________
And this second part is the INSIGHT:
But (character must face) ___________________
And In the end _____________________
My story is about a heroine who must go on the run in order to save a child from his dangerous and relentless mother. But fearing betrayal, she manipulates all relationships for her own agenda and endangers their lives. In the end, she learns that a life worth living depends on having faith and trust in others.
And there you have what the story is about (the plot/struggle) and what it’s really about (her Insight).
Here is the summary on figuring out these two steps:
STEP ONE: Define the Who, What, Crisis and Resolution of your story
STEP TWO: Put these elements in paragraph form using the template above.
I teach a class on these tools called Discovering Story Magic (DSM), a master class with an acclaimed 3-step method that teaches that most elusive skill: Storytelling.
Most writing books include a very important caveat about “storytelling,” usually referring to “an element within great storytelling which cannot be taught.” Storytelling, they say, is more than skill, luck, perspiration, and dedication. You either have it or you don’t.
I disagree with this.
Using the Discovering Story Magic technique reveals to individual writers, in their own way, what makes their characters, their stories and their perspective special. Very few writing books teach a straightforward, organic, specific-to-each-writer process for growing story from character. This magical skill is your own X-Factor.
It’s the magic that happens when you know what your story is REALLY about.
When you know what your story is REALLY about, you have found the HEART of your book.
And this is where the MAGIC really does happen.
DISCOVERING STORY MAGIC – The Class
I am excited to once again be teaching Discovering Story Magic and I want to thank Jenny for the chance to talk about the class here. Because it’s a different kind of class — a plotting class, but not only that. It’s a character-building class, and so much more.
We brainstorm with you on your own story. And by the end of the month, you have everything you need to sta