I’ve been thinking about story structure a lot this summer, thanks to the juicy writing projects I’ve been immersed in. Besides my own works in progress, I’ve spent lots of time beta reading for a couple of writer friends. Beta reading is a fantastic learning experience that makes me consider the essentials of storytelling at a fundamental level.
When I was teaching full-time, I’d launch my unit on story structure by writing “The BIG BUT in Storytelling” across the board. In a classroom full of tweens, it’s an attention-grabber for sure. Once the giggles had died down, we’d define effective story structure in fifth grade terms. Our curriculum called this structure “Somebody, Wanted, But, So.”
- Somebody (the character)
- Wanted (the character’s goal)
- But (an obstacle)
- So (the action he takes in response to the obstacle)
You must have a “BIG BUT,” I told the kids (more giggles), because the Big But keeps a character from reaching his goal. This creates conflict, which holds the reader’s attention.
After pinpointing these elements in short stories and popular fairy tales, the kids would move on to writing their own stories, but not before identifying their main character’s goal and an obstacle. “Make sure you have a Big But!” I liked to say.
It’s a great exercise, but naturally it gets trickier with longer works. In a novel-length piece, a character must enter scene after scene with a goal and some sort of obstacle that stands in his way. No obstacle, no conflict.
In Structuring Your Novel author K.M. Weiland writes:
Conflict comes in many variations—everything from a knife fight to a cave-in to a lost credit card. It doesn’t have to occur between two people. It doesn’t even have to be a fight or an argument in the traditional sense. All that matters is that it hinders the achievement of the scene goal. (p.183)
Lack of conflict, or the feeling that “nothing’s happening” is probably the number one reason I abandon a novel. I don’t need nuclear holocaust or loads of outrageous melodrama. Knowing what a character wants, no matter how small, and the struggle to get it, is what keeps me turning the pages.
When Katniss Everdeen entered the arena in The Hunger Games, one of her first goals was to find fresh water, a small step toward achieving her plot goal of surviving the deadly arena. BUT author Suzanne Collins did not let her obtain it easily. Katniss’s search for water consumed page after page, her quest becoming increasingly desperate while her physical and mental faculties slowly deteriorated. Then, just when she’d decided she couldn’t go on, that it was okay to give up the fight, Collins allowed her to achieve the scene’s goal. Beautiful conflict, beautiful storytelling!
The challenge as a writer is to create this sort of conflict, and to keep it coming in almost every scene. This basic structure is what’s guiding me as I restructure my novel: determining each scene’s goal, and the Big But standing in the way. Much easier said than done, of course!
Do your works in progress have enough Big Buts?