The Four Main Story Foundations For Writing
The Reality of All Stories
Just as all homes have wiring, plumbing, a frame and a roof, all creative stories and books have a milieu, an idea, characters and events. Without these four ingredients a story is just a collection of nouns and verbs.
One of these, however, usually has more emphasis than the others, and that becomes the foundation of the story. Which one depends solely on which is more important to the writer.
When I was writing my novel “The 12/59 Shuttle From Yesterday To Today,” it started out as a character-based novel, but by the time I had finished two chapters I realized that really what I wanted was to drive home a major theme, namely hope in the future. From that point on the actual writing of the novel became easy. I needed focus.
As it turned out, there are several related sub-themes to the book, but the driving force….the engine if you will, for the entire book was the theme of hope.
Let’s take an in-depth look at all four main foudations so we can have a bit more clarification about this topic.
The milieu of a story is the location it takes place in, and that location can be the central theme of the book. Examples can be found throughout literature, from James Michener’s “Hawaii” to “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.”
As the story proceeds, it becomes readily apparent that the world, the town, the society or the family unit within a home is the most important aspect. The reader is transported into that milieu and explores it through the eyes and words of the author. The story begins when the main character arrives on location, and the story ends when he/she leaves that location. What wonders are seen during this time, and what experiences are lived, are of importance because of the milieu.
The most common genre for milieu stories is science fiction and fantasy. In most stories within that genre, a main character arrives at a strange new world, and their observations of that world are what engage the readers.
Idea stories are about seeking and discovering new information through the eyes of the characters. Most mysteries are idea stories. The story begins with the discovery of a mystery and it ends when the mystery is solved.
It could be successfully argued that “To Kill A Mockingbird” was an idea story, the idea being the existence of racial prejudice. Through the eyes of Atticus, Scout and Jem, we see this theme unfold and then come to a conclusion, leaving us, the readers, to come to peace with our own thoughts about the issue.
There is a specific genre called “speculative fiction” in which the story begins with a question: Why did this place change in some way? A book of speculative fiction will unfold with the question and then continue until that question is answered.
"Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things."
T. S. Eliot
Character stories are primarily about the change in a character during the story. Of course most stories have main characters, but only character stories deal with the growth of the main character.
One might think it would be obvious that the Indiana Jones stories are character stories, but we never really know much about Indiana. We follow along as he risks this health, but there is very little depth to the man and he undergoes very little change.
Conversely, a tale like “The Runaway Bride” begins when we are aware of a character defect in the main character, and the story ends when that defect is dealt with in a positive manner.
Remember that a character-based story must be about the main character undergoing change and growth, whether it be positive growth or negative growth.
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In an event story, there is something wrong with the natural order of things. Some event has been introduced and that event must be dealt with before conclusion can be had.
In “Beowulf” it was the appearance of a monster. In “Hamlet” it was the unnatural death of a king. These stories are told by a main character whose job it is to restore things to their natural order, or fail trying. The story really begins when the main character becomes involved in the event and attempts to change matters, and the story ends when there is a resolution.
A classic example of an event story is J.R.R. Tolkien’s trilogy “The Lord of the Rings.” The reappearance of a powerful ancient evil who was thought to be dead is the engine that propels the story, and the story is told through Frodo and Bilbo, two characters that are so endearing that the reader cannot help but be spellbound.
Do you consciously employ one of these four platforms when you write?
Is a Combination Possible?
There are those rare books that combine two or more of these elements, but they are rare. The reason why they are rare is because of focus. In order for an article or book to be successful, it must focus on one major theme. To do otherwise would be to water down the main goal, and that is a recipe for disaster for a writer.
Again, in the writing of my first novel, it was a difficult process to water down the main characters and make sure that the story was not about them but rather about the main them. If I had leaned too heavily on character development I would have done the readers a disservice and confused them in the process.
Let's stop and do a little exercise. Have you written a novel or a short story? If so, go to it now and ask what the engine of that novel or story is? In other words, what central theme drives the story? If you can answer that question then well done! If not, you have some work to do, because if it is not clear to you then how can you expect it to be clear to your readers?
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Focus Your Story on One of the Four and Soar
You may already be doing this without even knowing it, but it never hurts to understand the process when writing a short story, article or book. Giving that process a name sometimes helps to clarify matters as you go about your trade.
For the sake of focus and by extension clarity, it is always best before starting out to decide what you are trying to say and how you want to say it. Do you want the character to be the main focus, or is there some main theme that you consider most important? Do you want the place to be the main focus or do you want an event to be it? Answer that question and you will have a solid foundation upon which you can build a successful piece of writing.
2013 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)
“Helping writers to spread their wings and fly.”