Back when I was in high school, I wore a button that said “My life has a superb cast, but I can’t figure out the plot.” I should have had Amy Deardon’s book back then.
Amy Deardon’s The Story Template has a basic premise: all successful stories are composed of thesame building blocks, and if you are going to write a successful story, you need to deal with those elements. We’ve seen this before in works like Blake Snyder’s fantastic Save The Cat!, but Deardon breaks it down much further, and not only addresses issues of plot but also character arc, theme, and message. She includes new ideas I’d “gotten” but never really formulated for myself, such as “story bubbles” and “plot pillars.”
As for how she did it:
I chose twenty entertaining, modern novels in different genres, and fifteen more-or-less recent films (and I’ve since confirmed my preliminary observations with tens of more stories). One at a time, I took them apart: I made a list of each scene, then did a word count or timed the scene, calculated percentages and other statistics, and graphed each story onto a five page chart. I studied each story’s progression, then compared the progressions of different stories to determine common pathways. […]
First, I identified elements called story posts, and found that these posts fell reliably within the timing of the whole. Then I found consistent trends of progression in the plot, as well as consistent trends of development and interactions in the characters. My biggest surprise, in fact, was finding just how unvarying were the underlying levels of the story.
The book is structured around exercises designed to guide you, step by step, through the process of plotting and framing your entire novel. The earliest exercises help you nail down what you love about the books you read, and then you begin framing out your own work. These exercises are thorough and will address every aspect of your book, from character development to setting to theme. The final exercises help you develop your logline, synopsis and pitch.
The detail is a bit unnerving at first. I’m primarily a seat-of-the-pants writer (meaning I do all my plotting in my head, and while I know the outcome I want, I let the characters figure out how to get there) so I found it intimidating, but I found that many of the exercises Deardon codifies in this book are things I would have worked out in my head, or by feel.
Whether you’re a plotter or a SOTP-er, whether you write character-driven fiction or plot-driven fiction, this book can only help. Even if you don’t do the exercises (I did not) it gives a window into how a well-formed story is crafted and all the major points it needs to touch upon to feel satisfying to the reader. For example, we all know a story should have a “midpoint” after which the characters change direction and the intensity ratchets up in anticipation of the final confrontation.
But Deardon points out two different kinds of midpoints (the false high and the false low) and the kinds of stories they tend to work with (e.g., if you protagonist didn’t know there was a main villain before the midpoint, it typically goes with a specific kind of midpoint.) These are connections I wouldn’t have made on my own, but Deardon with her engineering background was able to identify.
I highly recommend this book for anyone who writes fiction. You can buy The Story Template from Amazon in paperback or for Kindle, but the print edition of the book is far cheaper if you buy it from here. She maintains a blog at http://thestorytemplate.blogspot.com/ where she discusses different aspects of story-craft and publishing.
Note: I was provided a free e-copy of this book for review purposes, but nothing else. There was no demand that I must give a positive review.