People often ask me how I turn my story ideas into a story. They probably believe that there is some special fairy magic that goes on behind the scenes. The truth is much more mundane than that, but in many ways more exciting too. I follow a simple approach that is available to anyone to use. You don’t need to be some colossus of literature to do it and it really opens up the possibilities for story development. So what is it? Today I’m going to talk you through this process and show how you can go from a blank page to a fully-fledged story idea really quickly.
Step one: The six plots
I begin by choosing my plot. Not making up, but choosing. Though there are more stories in the world than it is possible to count, I believe there is a limited number of different basic plots to choose from. In fact, a literary theorist named Christopher Booker believes there are seven, as he tells us in his aptly named book ‘The Seven Basic Plots’. Booker believes that all storylines are simply a variant on these basic seven. I’d go one step further and say there are six basic plots, as follows:
- Overcoming the monster - Many of the most popular books and films of all time fall into this category - Harry Potter, Star Wars, James Bond and most crime thrillers. Ultimately it covers any story where the main plot is about defeating an opposing force (whether it be an actual monster, other people or your own inner demons).
- Rags to riches - A particularly popular theme in fairytales such as Cinderella or Aladdin, but also in Dickens.
- The quest - Probably the most popular plot after ‘Overcoming the monster’ and used in stories from the Lord of the Rings to Indiana Jones.
- The comedy - This is basically any story that simply narrates a series of comic events as its main focus. Examples in children’s books include the ‘Diary of a Wimpy Kid' series.
- The tragedy - Though many of the other plot types can involve a fatally flawed hero or heroine, the consequences of this fatal flaw are the main focus of tragedies from 'Oedipus Rex' to 'Madame Bovary'.
- The change - Though particularly common in fairytales (e.g. the Frog Prince, Beauty and the Beast), this remains a popular plot type from ‘A Christmas Carol’ to 'Despicable Me’ where changes in character occur rather than physical changes.
Though I don’t agree with everything Booker says, I have found his theories a really helpful way to approach storytelling. Once you have picked your basic plot or plots (many quests are also about overcoming the monster and many ‘rags to riches’ tales are also comedies) then you’re ready for step two.
Step two: The six characters
Once I have my basic plot I need to decide who are the individuals who will carry the plot along. As with plots, I believe there are also a limited number of character types. As a student, I was particularly intrigued by theories of Vladimir Propp developed from his analysis of Russian fairytales. He concluded that every character in these fairytales falls into one of seven types. I’ve found these invaluable in my own story development and have adapted them to my own purposes and again narrowed these to six general types.
- The hero / heroine - The person (or sometimes persons) around whom the story revolves. They may be an anti-hero or anti-heroine, even, but without one you haven’t got much of a story.
- The villain - Arguably not every plot type requires such a character, but some of my favourite characters from children’s books have been villains (Shere Khan, Cruella De Vil, Mr. Twit).
- The false hero - A classic character of fairytales whom we still meet in modern media with characters like Prince Charming in 'Shrek 2' and Zapp Brannigan in ‘Futurama’.
- The victim - This character type is a development from Propp’s own character type called the ‘Princess or prize’. I find it much more helpful to think of this character as the person to whom something unpleasant has happened which the hero or heroine needs to solve in the story rather than the hero’s goal.
- The helper - This character basically facilitates the story by providing some sort of help to the hero or heroine. Characters of this type include the Fairy Godmother in ‘Cinderella' and Short Round in 'Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom'.
- The fool - This character is not necessarily important to the development of the story, but provides comic relief, like Donkey in Shrek or Falstaff in Henry IV, part 1.
Armed with these simple ingredients it is very easy to go from no story idea to a story outline in minutes. It has helped me development my two books to date (find out more here) and I am using it currently for my next book. Will you give it a go?