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December 22, 2015

Does Our Story Have Everything It Needs?

Classroom skeleton with text: Does Our Story Have Good Bones?

Whether we’ve recently finished NaNoWriMo, or we have a completed story that we’re not sure works, we might struggle with deciding what to do next. Especially if we worry our story is a hot mess, we might be tempted to just shove it under the metaphorical bed and forget about it.

If we don’t mind that we spent time writing a story condemned to the dust bunnies, “trunking” a story is a valid choice. Just the process of writing and working through a story can teach us a lot, so the time isn’t necessarily wasted. A forgotten story is only a “failure” if we fail to learn anything from the experience.

But for many of us, we don’t want that time to be wasted (by any definition), and we’d rather do something with the story—if we can. If we decide our story has enough promise that it would be worth the time and effort to make it work, what should we do next?

We might ask ourselves:

  • Does our story contain all the essential elements?
  • Does it have the bones of a good story?

Let’s take a closer look at the essential elements for a story, so we can judge our writing and get an idea for how much work it might take to turn those story bones into something good.

Essential Elements of a Story

(Note: These tips will probably apply best to positive-arc stories. In the standard positive-arc story structure, the purpose of the plot is to reveal the character arc—how do plot events force the protagonist to change? With a flat arc (where they don’t change) or a negative arc (where they don’t get a happy ending), some of the character-focused elements might need to be tweaked or deemed irrelevant.)

Premise & Character Arc

Readers want an interesting story that feels like a worthwhile use of their time.

  • What is the concept behind our story? (can be like a logline or short pitch)
  • Does that premise have a hook, high-concept aspect, or something else to make it appealing to readers?
  • Does our story have a deeper aspect that adds meaning for readers (such as a theme)?
  • How does the protagonist change from beginning to end (beliefs, priorities, inner demons, etc.)?
  • Is the premise a good match for the genre and reader expectations for the genre?

Introduction & Hook

Readers want a compelling story and characters.

  • Is the story starting in the right place? Why is the story happening now?
    • What just changed? (Is there a new antagonist, goals, consequences, etc.?)
    • What triggered the protagonist to get involved? (What stakes are dragging the character into the story?)
  • Do we hint at the protagonist’s past or longings in a way that creates empathy, sympathy, or makes the reader “root” for them? (undeserved misfortune, backstory wound, inner demons holding them back, false beliefs, etc.)

Story Commitment Point

Readers want a sense of the point of the story, which is met by a major turning point near the 25% mark, also known as the End of the Beginning or the First Plot Point beat in story structure.

  • What forces the protagonist to commit to the story goal?
  • Are the story problem and stakes clear?
  • Do readers understand the goal and the protagonist’s motivation for moving forward?
  • Is there at least a hint of the story-sized obstacles and/or antagonists in the way?

Reflection Point

Readers want twists and turns in a story, which requires at least one time in a story when the context changes. This requirement is met by a major turning point near the 50% mark, also known as the Midpoint beat in story structure.

  • What adds layers to the story goal or problem?
    • Do readers get a clearer picture of the antagonist or obstacles?
    • Does the protagonist now fully understand what it will take to succeed?
    • Have the stakes increased in a major way?
  • How do those layers change the context of the story for the characters or the reader?

Black Moment Point

Readers want the ending to feel in jeopardy, which is met by a major turning point near the 75% mark, also known as the Crisis beat in story structure.

  • What makes the story goal seem hopeless and out of reach?
  • How is the threat of the consequences of failure (stakes) realized?
  • How are the protagonist’s issues (backstory wound, false beliefs, inner demons, etc.) preventing a solution?

Showdown Point

Readers want to reach a resolution with the antagonist(s) and story goals, which is met by a major turning point that often takes up from the 80% mark to the 95% mark, also known as the Climax or Finale in story structure.

  • What forces the protagonist to confront the antagonist(s)?
  • How does the protagonist change and overcome their issues in some way?
  • In what way is the story goal and/or character longing met?
  • How do readers experience the desired emotional reaction? (Do we show the protagonist as a changed person and show how their life (or the world) is now better or different?)

Story Flow

Readers want a story that makes them forget they’re reading. Just as a great writing voice can forgive many sins, so too can a great story flow and pace that pulls readers along.

Update: Want this in a worksheet format you can download and fill out? Your wish is my command. *grin*

If we have all these elements, we likely have a story—and not just any story, but a story that’s already strong, has a purpose and arc, and can be made even stronger by bringing out the aspects that will create resonance within readers.

We can reference the theme in echoes throughout the story. We can emphasize the protagonist’s inner struggle and changes. And we can sharpen the turning points to deepen the disasters and dilemmas the characters face. Etc., etc.

These questions are all about ensuring the bones of our story are good. With good bones, we can then flesh out a great story by strengthening the plot and character arc muscles and adding the flawless skin of compelling prose. *smile*

Have you ever wondered if a completed story had good bones? How have you tried to tell? Do you agree with these essential elements? Can you think of any others that should be included? Do you think these elements would help indicate whether a story has good “bones”?

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What do you think?

10 Comments on "Does Our Story Have Everything It Needs?"

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Serena Yung
Serena Yung
Oh as my story I just finished is an epic, it’s actually made up of many stories, many arcs. The protagonists don’t change much, but certain other main characters do. The main villain is the one who changes the most dramatically. Some of my characters actually have negative arcs, and there is a childhood best friendship that was destroyed beyond repair. (No idea why something so sad happened in my story.) As for themes, yeah, my story has tons of themes in it, yay! The one most notable is the theme of forgiveness. The story seems to imply that you can forgive anybody, no matter how heinous the crime, as long as they are truly and deeply repentant. I actually disagree with this viewpoint, lol, but it does agree with my religion (Christianity)’s stance. And you could say the “main story” involves my main villain and how he becomes good and is forgiven (though not all forgave him, of course.) So you may say that my villain is more interesting than my protagonists, lol. I really like some of the side stories, though, like the “unrequited love but marry anyway” couple I told you about–quite a unique situation that I have never heard of before. I’m glad it worked out for them in the end, or else they would be getting a sad ending as well, which was what I initially anticipated. 🙁 I still didn’t predict that that aforementioned friendship would be destroyed, though, sigh. P.S. It was great… Read more »
Maurine
Maurine

I have a checklist for when I edit and make sure my story has all the elements it should have, but I like yours better. Thanks for the interesting and educational post.

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[…] I’ll be mostly offline for the rest of this week, but I wanted to leave you with a gift before I disappear. I’m a huge fan of Christmas, but I interrupted my Christmas to-do list to put together a worksheet based on the Essential Elements list I covered in my last post. […]

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[…] Does Our Story Have Everything It Needs? by Jami Gold. Great points on her list! […]

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[…] Does Our Story Have Everything it Needs? by Jami Gold […]

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[…] a Story: Does our story contain all the essential elements? Does it have the bones of a good story? Learn what elements we need for our story to be strong, have a purpose and an arc, and how we can make it even […]

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[…] Use my worksheet for analyzing our story’s bones. […]

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[…] our story contain all the essential elements? Does it have the bones of a good story? Learn what elements we need for our story to be strong, have a purpose and an arc, and how we can make it even […]

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