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The Secret Formula for a Winning Story

Updated on May 3, 2010

Here’s a formula for crafting a publishable story that is so basic I would apologise for mentioning it except that it is still a secret to many writers. Or so it seems, from the many hundreds of entries to my writing contest that I’ve judged this year. Of course, an author can ignore this device (and any other proprietary ‘formula’) and triumph regardless. But when your muse goes on vacation, this little plan will come to your rescue.

The formula is: Exposition or Description | Action and/or Dialogue | Reflection.

Here’s a demonstration of it. Our story might start:

Exposition or Description: ‘It was a dark and windy night’.

Action and/or Dialogue: ‘"What was that?" Tom gasped. His hand trembled.’

Reflection: ‘The man would jump at his own shadow, I thought. But I looked where he pointed. I saw nothing except the stars, tangled in the high branches of the leafless trees.’

We then repeat the cycle.

It doesn’t matter which element starts the story as the cycle rotates endlessly until we have achieved our desired word length. And it’s not important if one element temporarily dominates another, provided the overall balance stays the same.

Too much exposition is a yawn

What we must not do is to write a story that’s all exposition. (We can see it in some Victorian novels where everything is told, not shown, so the modern reader falls asleep.) Or that’s all dialogue. (Even a playscript will have copious stage directions ie. exposition.) Or that’s all reflection. (I doubt if the meditative À la Recherche du Temps Perdu would find a publisher today. Unless, of course, the author’s name was Proust.)

A readable story needs a balance of all three elements.

One value of this formula is that, if we get into the rhythm of it, we can tell by instinct when a story is getting out of sync. For example, we might find ourselves deep in a patch of dialogue and think: ‘I need to break this up with action, exposition or reflection’.

So if our characters absolutely must sit chatting around a restaurant table for two hours to exchange vital information, introduce a little sub-plot. Perhaps an inept waiter muddles the food order. We can have the diners respond to his clumsiness (action) and comment on it (reflection). How they respond and comment will further characterise them and, what’s more, the trivial incident breaks up the episode.

Incidentally, an even neater way to break up a long slab of dialogue is to have the characters walk as they talk. All the little things they encounter in their ramble can introduce action, exposition or reflection.

The formula helps with description

Another benefit of the formula is that it helps us to describe a setting as we go, painlessly building up a scene one impression at a time. That’s important as readers tend to forget the details (or skip them entirely) if we hit them with a long slab of scenery.

For example, we can slide the scenic descriptions into an episode of dialogue/action or reflection.

‘It was the kind of town where rats crawled to die.

‘"I’m darn glad I’m wearing trail boots," John muttered. Glass crunched beneath his feet as he stepped into the alley. He kicked a discarded beer can into a pool of vomit where needles glittered like tinsel.

‘Even a rookie cop was some comfort in a hell-hole like this, he thought. He looked behind him for his buddy. The man was gone.’

That may not be a great story opener but the exposition - the terse description of the alley - has been sneaked in between passages of action and reflection. We don’t need to detail the rest of it - the boarded up shops, the bums drinking out of paper sacks, the bag lady poking in a trash bin, etc. The reader’s imagination fills in the picture of the grim slum town.

Exposition or Description | Action and/or Dialogue | Reflection

It’s a great formula. Shakespeare swore by it. It’s a fair description of the first Act of Hamlet…

Also see... Tested Ways to Beat Writer's Block. Click here.


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    • John Yeoman profile image

      John Yeoman 7 years ago from Story writing land in the centre of England

      You're welcome. Truly, it's great fun to play with words. But it's even more fun when they're published!

    • Sembj profile image

      Sembj 7 years ago

      I will be dusting off the last short story I wrote to improve it with your suggestions. Thanks.

    • John Yeoman profile image

      John Yeoman 7 years ago from Story writing land in the centre of England

      The formula is also a great way to discover why you don't like a story that's otherwise good. You'll probably find that just one element predominates. It's also a quick fix for a story you write yourself. If the story's otherwise good, rotate the elements as above - and it will be better.

    • BennyTheWriter profile image

      BennyTheWriter 7 years ago from Northeastern U.S.A.

      Brilliant, elegant method for short-story writing! I've started many a short story, not knowing how to possibly continue and finish them, but "repeating the cycle" might just help me out. I'll have to try this.

      You've won a new follower. Thanks for a wonderfully informative hub.

    • missmaudie profile image

      missmaudie 7 years ago from Brittany, France

      Another great hub, thanks. I agree about the Victorain novels. We had to read A Portrait of a Lady (Henry James) as an A level text and it was sooooo booorrrriinng. Who needs a whole page describing somebody sitting on a seat written in huge great paragraphs. I tried to read it again recently but lost the will to live after about 5 pages. I suppose that was just the accepted way to write then.

    • John Yeoman profile image

      John Yeoman 7 years ago from Story writing land in the centre of England

      Thanks! More shall be posted, anon.

    • thevoice profile image

      thevoice 7 years ago from carthage ill

      terrific hub reading look forward to reading more thanks

    • John Yeoman profile image

      John Yeoman 7 years ago from Story writing land in the centre of England

      You're very welcome. My problem is, I can't figure out how to stop!

    • profile image

      Linda Myshrall 7 years ago

      Helpful to those of us who have a hard time figuring out how to start :) Thanks for this, Linda