This Simple Story Structure Changed My Life

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This Simple Story Structure Changed My Life You’ve got a killer novel idea, and you’re convinced it could put you on the map as an author.

But you’re having trouble getting started. Why?

Because:

  • You’re not sure whether you’re an outliner or a pantser.
    • Outliners seem to have their plots entirely scoped out, like Snowflake Method guru Randy Ingermanson.
    • Pantsers write by the seat of their pants. Stephen King and I say, “Put interesting people in difficult situations and write to find out what happens.”
  • Regardless, you know you need at least some kind of a structure on which to hang your ideas.

Here’s Your Solution

This structure changed my life and my career.

I had been turning out serviceable mid-list series novels for several years when I stumbled across Dean Koontz’s How to Write Best Selling Fiction (Writer’s Digest Books), © 1981.

It resonated with me. I devoured it. Took notes, scribbled in it, highlighted it, dog-eared its pages, adopted its precepts and followed them religiously, taught it at writers conferences.

I sold my next novel, a standalone, to a major New York publishing house. By the end of the millennium my novels were selling in the tens of millions.

Now, before you start One-click ordering it from Amazon, I need to tell you, the cheapest copy listed on their website a minute ago was $175. And don’t start digging into your secret cash stash, because I’m not giving up my copy.

Yes, it’s that good.

So why did I get your hopes up if Koontz’s writing book is so rare?

Because I’m still going to give you the heart of it.

What made the difference for me was his simple “Creating and Structuring a Story Line.”

Koontz says a novel without a strong plot is like being all dressed up with no place to go.

Naturally he goes into much more detail, but here’s all you need to know for now. Do this and you’ll immediately separate yourself from your competition and see your novel spring to life.

The Classic Plot Structure

  1. Plunge your main character (lead/hero/heroine) into terrible trouble as soon as possible.

The definition of “terrible trouble” differs depending on your genre. For a thriller it may mean your hero is hanging from his fingernails from a railroad trestle. For a cozy romance, it may mean your heroine must choose between two seemingly perfect suitors, each of whom harbors a dark secret.

  1. Everything your character does to get out of the trouble makes it only worse.

The complications must be logical and grow increasingly bad until…

  1. The lead’s predicament appears entirely hopeless.
  1. Finally, because of what all that conflict has taught the character from the beginning, your lead rises to the occasion and battles out of the trouble, meets the challenge, accomplishes the quest, or completes the journey.

That’s It…

…in its simplest form, but I hope it gives you a place from which to launch.

In the Comments below, ask me about how to apply this structure to your work in progress.

 

  • Adrian

    My book begins with the main character being kidnapped. It’s set up with two POVs so the reader can figure out he’s being kidnapped to be tested. There are cameras inside the white van and people watching on TV screens. When the character devises a way to escape, it not only gives a good action scene but reveals the personality of the character. Is he the kind of person that would jump out on a freeway? If given the chance, would he kill his kidnappers? In the fourteen-year-old hero’s case, both answers are no. I love beginnings.

    • Of course I’m at a disadvantage, Adrian, unable to see the whole scope of it. But I’d lean toward only his POV and let him learn through what he hears and sees and discovers that perhaps this is a test. Maybe through his escape efforts he stumbles upon the discovery of the TV monitors and realizes he has fewer options that he thought, etc. Two POVs may give too much of the story away.

      • Adrian

        Thanks for the criticism. I had a feeling something was amiss! Now that I think about it, that way seems better.

  • Chad Young

    When writing about one’s personal life struggles and overcoming, I presume this means starting the book at my darkest point, and then going back to show how I got there and forward to how I escaped to greener pastures. You got my creative juices flowing. thanks.

    • That might be an interesting experiment–building a memoir on a fiction story structure.

  • Judy Christie

    Great post! I stumbled across this book for a few dollars at a used bookstore and love it. Thanks for summing it up so helpfully.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Wow, that was one lucky find, eh?

  • mollie j. rushmeyer

    This was very timely for me and where I am at with my WIP–which is– completely lost! I had a vision for this novel at one time, but then I changed so much of my basic premise when I chose to rewrite the book. Now I’m not sure where I’m going, and after reading this, I think I tried to complicate the story so much that the basic theme and what I’m trying to tell, is lost. I hate giving up on something (and I apologize that this is slightly off-topic) but when do you know a manuscript is dead in the water, i.e. it’s time to move on? I’m afraid that my story is never going to work.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Sounds like it might be time to start over. Read through it with pd and paper in hand and jot down the stuff you want to keep. Simplify it and tell it as if to your best friend. And, yes, keep it streamlined and simple.

  • Julie Duffy

    Fabulous. But how many complications do you think are too many? For example, for a Young Adult action-based story. I suspect I’m over-complicating my story…

    • Karen Keil

      Good question – I hope when you get an answer, I get a notification, too.

    • mollie j. rushmeyer

      Yes! I’d love this answer too!

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      That IS a danger, but complications, tension, and conflict are the engine that drive your story and in fact they ARE your story. So you need enough to reach your page count.

  • Elizabeth

    As always, a great post Jerry. Thank you.

    I’ve read a copy of Dean Koontz’ book years ago and it went right over my head, but I didn’t think so at that time.

    It was not until you recommended the book that I went back to that copy (actually, by then, a library borrowed copy ) and I finally understood it.

    Again, to me, it all starst with conviction. I had a conviction that the book would be helpful to me, and my eyes were finally opened to the gems that anyone who is truly seeking to learn can see in Dean Koontz’s book; but I would never had seen it if not for your recommendation, so I wish to thank you. It is indeed a great book, but one has to have eyes to see it; like everythging else in life.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      How true. :)

  • Karen Keil

    The interesting thing that I’m facing is that one of the complications in my story is the introduction of a character who could probably solve the problems my protagonist is facing. She knows he could. She thinks he should, and she’s angry because he’s told her, “I agree that your goal is a good one, but I’m not here to make it happen for you.” I suspect he’s telling me that, too.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Right, resist the urge to have a Mr. Fix It. Your character must be the one who rises to the occasion, based on what she’s learned through her struggles throughout.

      • Karen Keil

        I didn’t think he was a Mr. Fix It when I introduced him. I’m not sure he really is one – but I realized that she could see him as one, and that I could turn him into one. I haven’t written him into the sections that would benefit from his “fixing” but his focus involves one particular consequence of the action, leaving my MC to face what to her would seem the much greater problem. If it doesn’t work, he’ll have to come out – but the character’s germ is interesting..

        • Jerry B Jenkins

          Great, Karen. As long as you’re aware of our tendency (I share it) to sneak in eases and comforts for our MCs. I try to be on the lookout for them and ferret them out. The story is always better when we make things harder on our leads. :)

          • Karen Keil

            Yep, I agree. Now I’m wondering, though, about whether I gave my MC too much help even before introducing my potential Mr. Fix It. My MC effectively ends up directing an “army” of sorts. It’s a sort of “Stand together or die separately” situation. Now I’m second guessing everything (again.)

          • Not that there’s anything wrong with that (the second guessing). :) Welcome to my world. I like to say there’s no such thing as a final draft; all writing is rewriting.

            When in doubt, pull something out (from under your hero).

          • Karen Keil

            I think I’m going to start an “art” file of quotes like “When in doubt…hero.)” that I can flip through along with my editing, which might do very well to be put on index cards with one point per card so I don’t get overwhelmed. And I think the picture to go with this quote might be Jenga.

  • D. Holcomb

    I’m revising a novel, and this is key to me: “Everything your character does to get out of the trouble makes it only worse.” The key word here being “does.” Not, “Everything that happens to your character makes it worse.” My character needs to be more active in getting out of her terrible trouble.

    I read the book from the library. I wish the publisher would reprint it!

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Yes, don’t let your character be passive and reactive. He/she should be trying to fix things, but failing and making them only worse in the process, but learning hard lessons along the way.

  • Laurie Kehoe

    I heard Ted Dekker recently describe story as worthy characters in series of events that brings about transformation. (Not quite right but I can’t remember it exactly.) I remember you also saying, Jerry, that establish the status quo that upset it or as you say get your characters in trouble as soon as possible. Then let them find their way out.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Establish the status quo, THEN upset it, right.

      • Laurie Kehoe

        Oops :) typed that one too fast. I did mean then.

  • Roslyn

    Please show me how to apply Koontz’s writing structure to my novel.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Follow steps 1-4 in the blog. :)

  • Ashanda N. McCants

    Amazing!! Loving it. Would love your feedback about structuring my first adult novel, an allegory. I think I am headed in the right direction with immediate suspense. I’m five chapters in. Thanks.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Koontz’s structure should work well for you, Ashland.

  • Terrie Todd

    Thanks for this, Jerry. I am a pantser with two novels under my belt (one published, one waiting) and am now attempting to win a novella contract where the publisher requires only a one-page synopsis…just to force myself to think it through ahead of time. Your advice is duly noted.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Thanks, Terrie. All the best with that. Keep us posted.

  • Jeanne Enstad

    I’m like Chad in that my story is about my struggles and how I’ve overcome them through turning to God. The problem I have is that my many trials of various types are over a period of twenty five years. My book is in chronological order which also consists of many stories of nurses, doctors, patients, hospital administrators along with others that have turned their lives over to Christ through witnessing my trials. Since I’ve been to Heaven twice I talk about what it’s like coming back to live on earth after living in paradise. Jerry, I have learn so much from being in this guild. Can you give me some thoughts? I would appreciate anyone that has some thoughts for me. I love reading all you comments and I am learning so much from all of you. Thank you so much. There is always a purpose and reason why God puts us where we are.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Thanks for your kind comments, Jeanne. Do you have specific questions? Otherwise, I would just counsel you to be very selective and choose only anecdotes from your life that support a specific theme. Be careful not to feel obligated to include your entire life history.

  • Robert Murphy

    Thanks, Jerry! I’ve noticed that when I run into a writing roadblock or speed bump, it’s generally because something in my story line doesn’t fit, something about my character doesn’t work, or I’m indecisive about where to go. Oftentimes I’ve made the story too complex or tried putting too much into it, so I go back to the KISS principle and cut what doesn’t work. I’ll usually stop writing and spend however long it takes to resolve it in my mind, then go back to writing. In my current novel, I found myself simply writing where the story took me and came up with some really good stuff I would have never “thought” of.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Fun when that happens, isn’t it, Robert? That’s how it’s supposed to work :)

      • Robert Murphy

        Right now it’s like taking diction. I’m scrapping the last 6 chapters and taking the story in a different direction. For a long time I struggled with: do I make it fantastic, or do I make it realistic? I settled on a happy medium and it’s working out.

        • Jerry B Jenkins

          Sounds great, Robert. Assuming the word you wanted there was “dictation.” :)

          • Robert Murphy

            Gotta love that auto-correct!

          • Jerry B Jenkins

            Like the guy who had to go to Hawaii on business and couldn’t take his wife. So he texted, “Having a great time Wish you were her.”

          • Robert Murphy

            I’ll have to remember that when I go to New Orleans next month! haha.

  • Judy Peterman Blackburn

    I wrote my first novel and self-published. I was going to write a sequel. I have since taken it out of circulation and working at making it available to a traditional publisher. I’m thinking it’s kind of short, only around 45,000 words. So instead of a sequel I’ve thought to combine the two as one novel. I edited the first pages like I’ve learned here and pared down those pages to two. So I know I have a lot more editing to do.
    Thanks, Jerry for this blog. Look forward to your writings and advice. I want to read Dean Koontz’s book. Will look for it in the library. :)

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Thank you, Judy. Good to have you here.

  • Emma Coleman

    Thanks, Jerry. I am going to the library today to get Dean Koontz’s book. My book is non-fiction, but my outline is not moving the story forward. I am struggling with getting the necessary back story worked in through
    dialogue.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Good idea, Emma. This structure can actually inform nonfiction in many ways as well.

  • Lynn Thomas

    I wonder if this model may also fit for a nonfiction book. Immediate conflict, but there is a hope! And the answer lies in the earned authority of the author and others. Might this be true?

    • Absolutely, Lynn. It’s all in the voice and presentation.

  • Tracie Henkel

    I’m a new blogger who writes about home life and faith. I’ve been wondering how to add some tension to move along, so I tend to go with status quo –> change of thinking or new insight. Is that a fair way to apply this principle to nonfiction?

    • Yes, Tracie, any time you add fictional techniques to nonfiction, it helps. People love a story, and in the case of a blog, true stories are good, especially if they are told with some drama. Make use of dialogue, description, tension, conflict, pace, and–yes–even the type of structure Koontz recommends. Be careful not to fall into melodrama, in other words, overdoing it. Or the didactic, where a story is clearly invented to make a point. (“Mary went to the doctor for what she thought was a routine physical, only to discover…”

      Rather, I think people reading a blog resonate with very person true stories. “I’ll never forget when my best friend showed up at dawn one morning while I was getting the kids ready for school. That might not seem so strange, but she lives two states away and she was alone. Suzie had driven all night and hadn’t chosen to call…”

      • D. Holcomb

        Love how you apply fiction techniques to a blog entry. When writing true stories on a blog, how does the blogger take into account “reader first”?

        • Jerry B Jenkins

          Good question. It’s what I try to do everyday. The goal its make sure there’s more in your blog for your reader than for you. It’s as simple as that. Resist the urge show off, talk about yourself, sell, preach, etc. It’s all about benefits to the reader, takeaway value.

  • How would you apply this to a character driven novel? It seems to apply more to plot driven stories.

    • This is going to sound simplistic, Rebecca, but to my mind, what makes a novel character driven is the amount of inner dialogue. Do all those things listed in numbers one through four above and have your character think a lot about how frustrated he/she is about how difficult things become with each new complication.

  • Love the new guild. After reading your how-to apply the predicament structure, I rewrote the opening chapter that takes place during World War II, October 1943. Questioning if this is what you and Koontz mean.

    Our family lived two blocks from the Pacific Ocean in one of those six Paradise Cottages that sat in a row by an old three-pump gas station. The weather was bathing suit warm in October, but then it always seemed like summer in Santa Barbara.

    Our cottage had a tiny bathroom and bedroom, where my sister Lucy and I slept on bunk beds. Mother’s grand piano and a foldout couch took up most of the living room. The manager lived next door, but all the other cottages were rented nightly or sometimes weekly.

    That night, Daddy worked both evening shifts as a security guard and then he had to go to his post office job. Veronica, my mother, had left Lucy and I alone again. Cars pulled in and out of the cottages, headlights shining through our bedroom window. Doors slamming. Men cursing. Women laughing loud.

    A man pounded on our door. “Veronica, let me in.”

    My sister and I didn’t make a sound or turn on a light. She covered her head with a pillow and cried. I was scared, too, but I had to act brave for Lucy who was four. I was almost eight.

    I waited on the top bunk with a small iron skillet to protect us.

    The manager yelled, “Get outta here ya dirty hobo.”

    A series of exploding sounds went off like firecrackers, followed by silence, not a car, not a voice, not even a siren. No lights. Only blackness for a long time.

    Then the manager flashed a light through our window and called, “Girls, he’s gone.”

    “Mommy? Rachel?” my sister cried.

    I leaned over and whispered. “It’s okay. I’m here. Go to sleep.”

    I wrapped myself in my blanket and pulled it over my face and head. If Mother didn’t come by morning, I’d stay home from school and take care of Lucy again.

    • Thanks for your kind comments, Sheila. Let me paste below a bit of your copy and comment on it briefly in brackets:

      Our cottage had a tiny bathroom and bedroom, where my sister Lucy and I slept [I think you want to punctuate that a little differently so it doesn’t appear your sister and you were sleeping in both the bathroom and the bedroom. Perhaps “… bathroom and a bedroom, where my sister…” And you want to establish your ages here. It comes as too much of a surprise later and slows the terrifying action. Just something simple: “I was almost eight. Lucy was four.”]

      [I would delete “That night,” as it sort of comes out of the blue and makes the reader wonder “what night?” Plus I think you don’t need it here. After establishing that your dad worked late, you can introduce this crisis with “One night…”

      Daddy worked [I think there’s too much detail here, because you want to get into the drama; just say “…late every night and my mother had left Lucy and me (not I)…] alone again. Cars pulled in and out of the cottages, headlights shining through our bedroom window. [In the following, I would stay with the past tense: slammed, cursed, laughed–and you don’t need the “loud,” because it’s implied by the fact that you can hear it inside.] Doors slamming. Men cursing. Women laughing loud. [Doors slammed. Men cursed. Women laughed.]

      A man [you don’t know this until you hear his voice, so, “Someone pounded on our door and called for my mother. ‘Veronica, let me in!” a man shouted.

      My sister and I didn’t make a sound or turn on a light. She covered her head with a pillow and cried [you just said neither of you made a sound]. [I would delete the next two sentences; give the reader credit; no one needs to be told how petrifying this would be for two little girls.] I was scared, too, but I had to act brave for Lucy who was four. I was almost eight.

      I waited on the top bunk with a small iron skillet to protect us. [you need to show this and not tell it; surely you didn’t normally sleep with a skillet; whisper desperately to Lucy to stay put while you creep to the kitchen and get a skillet for a weapon, wondering what in the world you’ll do with it if the man breaks in.]

      The manager yelled, “Get outta here [need a comma here] ya dirty hobo.”

      A series of exploding sounds [this doesn’t sound like a seven-year-old; let us hear the little girl you :)] went off like firecrackers, followed by silence, not a car, not a voice, not even a siren. No lights. Only blackness [seems incongruous to compare blackness with noise] for a long time.

      [Maybe: Lucy and I covered our ears at a bunch of loud pops that sounded like firecrackers. Then nothing. Just silence for a long time.]

      Then the manager flashed a light through our window and called, “Girls, he’s gone.”

      “Mommy? Rachel?” my sister cried.

      I [I’d condense the stage direction and delete “leaned over and”] whispered. “It’s okay. I’m here. Go to sleep.”

      I wrapped myself in my blanket and pulled it over my face [ditto “and head”]. If Mother didn’t come by morning, I’d stay home from school [ditto “and take care of”] with Lucy again.

      So that was a long answer to a short question, but yes, you plunge you character into terrible trouble immediately. This has the feel of a true story. If it were–or if it IS–a novel, I’d suggest your heroine complicate her life by trying to remedy the situation herself and making it only worse. Maybe she foolishly tries to bluff the potential intruder and claims to be calling the police or to have a gun or to say she’s going to wake her father, only to have him threaten her…

      • Jerry, Thanks ever so much!! Your corrections and suggestions clarified it for me.

        My book is a novel that I wanted to read like a true or real life story, similar to a Jodi Picoult novel. The idea behind the story is that people who grow up in severely dysfunctional homes, may blame their family and make self- and other-destructive choices, or they can decide that they will make a positive difference. The story shows how the main character made that choice and the people whose loving concern showed her how to live a loving, constructive life.

        • Great idea, Sheila. I like it. And as fiction, you can really run with the Koontz model.

  • Elizabeth

    Sheila, I’d appreciate if you share where have you read the “how-to-apply predicament structure” (maybe it is right under my nose :) ) Thank you

    • When I used the word “predicament” I meant terrible trouble as Jerry tells us how-to-apply in his blog.

  • Elizabeth

    Oh, okay, Sheila, I guess I read the post but forgot the title.

  • Terry Barnes

    Jerry,
    This sounds like the formula Lester Dent used when we wrote the Doc Savage novels. Just when everything looked impossible, Doc used some cunning or skill to save everyone. It makes for great reading.

  • Thank you so much for this! Your points really help give me better perspectives. If you don’t mind, here is a snippet of what I’m working on:

    The red lights flash through her darkened room. Peering between the curtains of the upstairs window, Lois sees the ambulance parked across the street. A police car radio saying something, but she barely notices. Her attention is focused toward the house.

    The events outside her front porch make the already dreary, rainy night more chilling. She could see her mom near their gate, huddled with another neighbor friend. Watching. Speaking in low voices. Then all is still. There it is, the gurney emerging from the house. She hears her mom let out an audible sob. As the gurney is wheeled to the back of the ambulance, Lois could see more clearly, the form of a person, covered by the white sheet. Suddenly, Lois felt the urge to throw up.

    Frozen to the window, Lois watches her mother, shivering in the chill of the night…or was she crying? Her hand over her mouth, stifling sobs. The neighbor friend stands close, their arms around each other, comforting one another, heads lowered, shoulders shaking. Their sorrow was more than Lois could bear.

    She sees the police enter the house and the ambulance quietly drives away.

    Stillness.

    Bile urged up her throat. Numb. She runs to the bathroom, afraid of what she knew. Her friend told her she would do it. She told Lois only a few days ago she would shame her family, she would be an embarrassment to her future husband’s family and forever be ‘that’ woman.

    Lois couldn’t wrap her head around what her friend told her. Nausea takes over. Then, back in the darkness of her bedroom, Lois turns on the record player. Santana tonight…and her stash of weed. Tonight she’ll add some powder to the mix to help forget.Tonight she chooses to keep her ghosts at bay. Dottie didn’t know this about Lois. It was one secret never shared. Now, she’s gone.

    • Establish Lois as your perspective character and you can eliminate all the references to “peering,” “sees,” “focused toward,” “could see,” “hears,” “audible,” “could see,” “watches,” and “sees.”

      That will make your opening crisper, because the reader intuits that all these things you describe your perspective character naturally sees and hears. Then, just indicate this is night and you don’t have to use the adjective “darkened.” So it could read like this:

      Red lights flashing through the curtains drew Lois to her bedroom window in the night. An ambulance and police car sat in front of the house across the street in the rain.

      Just below, her mom huddled with a neighbor, talking in low voices. They fall silent when EMTs wheel a gurney out. Her mom lets out a sob.

      [This is on the nose and can be deleted: As the gurney is wheeled to the back of the ambulance, Lois could see more clearly, the form of a person,covered by the white sheet. Suddenly,]

      The body is covered head to toe, and Lois feels [maintain tense] the urge to throw up. Her mother is shivering,

      [Delete: Frozen to the window, Lois watches her mother, shivering in the chill of the night…or was she crying? Her hand over her mouth, stifling sobs. besides being on the noise, you can’t have her mother sobbing and then ask if she’s shivering or crying, then say she’s stifling sobs; ]

      embraced by the neighbor. [avoid all this stage direction–we can see it; friend stands close, their arms around each other, comforting one another, heads lowered, shoulders shaking.]

      [delete Their sorrow was more than Lois could bear. show, don’t tell]

      Lois feels for her mother.

      Two police officers enter the house and the ambulance pulls away.

      [delete; unnecessary; there’s nothing left to create sound; Stillness.]

      [delete; cliched Bile urged up her throat. Numb.] Lois runs to the bathroom. [delete; vague; afraid of what she knew.]

      Dottie told her she would do it. She told Lois only days before she wouldn’t shame her family, embarrass her fiance’s family, and forever be ‘that’ woman.

      [delete; Lois couldn’t wrap her head around what her friend told her. she just explained it; ]

      [delete; give the reader credit; we know why she ran to the bathroom; Nausea takes over.]

      [delete Then; you’re writing chronologically, so everything is ‘then’ :)]

      Back in [delete the darkness of] her bedroom, Lois turns on the record player. Santana tonight…and [omit needless words her stash of] weed. Tonight she’ll add powder [be specific] to the mix to help forget.Tonight she’ll keep her ghosts at bay. Dottie didn’t know this about Lois. It was one secret never shared. Now, she’s gone. [you’re confusing the reader with your use of ‘she’ here. First ‘she’ is Lois. Next ‘she’ is Dottie.]

      Dottie didn’t know this about Lois. [stay in present tense] It’s one secret he’s never shared. And now Dottie’s gone.

      [You should deal fairly quickly with the dichotomy between Lois feeling bad about her mother’s sorry but turning to her weed before going to comfort her.]

      • This is so helpful! Thank you! I have more written for when Lois’ mom comes inside, but this beginning part is enough to help me rethink my approach and wording. Thanks again.

  • Johnnie Erma Corbitt

    Okay, how do I apply this to answers to prayer short stories. A new believer, trying to survive, I believed all God’s promises, and He answered every prayer. I want to show through these stories how God loves to answer prayers of anyone who simply believes Him.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      You don’t. This is a structure for fiction.

  • Jessica Seale

    This is very helpful. I can definitely identify these elements in my favorite Christian suspense books. I’m not exactly a suspense writer, though. I lot of the conflict I write is internal. I had a new novel idea a few weeks ago, one that seemed really promising, but I can’t get past the first page and a half. Here it is. Bring the criticism. It needs a lot.
    “Day 701,” I write on the yellow legal pad with my stub of a pencil, feeling like a POW
    scratching tick marks on a cement wall. I could mark on the wall, I guess, lots of others have before me. I don’t want to leave anything in this miserable cell that bears witness to my time here, though. I don’t deserve any kind of memorial, no matter how crude. I stare at the lined yellow paper, the page half full of consecutive dates. I always intend to write something else below the date and day count, but the only thing I can think of is the same thing I wrote for the first week of my time here: “Why am I so stupid? What was I thinking? How could I do such a thing? I wish I could go back.” As I stare at the wall, I again ask myself the question I have never brought myself to write or speak aloud:
    “Will my life ever be worth living again?”
    I try to remember what life was like three years ago, back before my life lost all meaning. All I
    can remember is feeling dead inside. Feeling hopeless. Like all was lost. Now it really is. Slowly I find my way past the darkness and nothingness to actual memories. I remember my friends. My senior prom. High school graduation. My first week of college. Which was also my last. I had told myself over and over that it was my decision to drop out. But I know that isn’t true. I did it out guilt. And because I started listening to the voices that said I would fail. No matter how hard I tried to overcome the way my brain globbed up like molasses when I was under pressure, no matter how hard I tried to stop counting the desks in the classroom and focus on the lecture instead, I always failed miserably. And then there was her. She told me I was being selfish. And I believed her. But none of that matters now. I used to dream, back
    before the darkness and nothingness took over. My dream was always that I would be someone great, someone everyone admired. When my name was spoken or read, it would always be with awe and dignity, because the words the clogged up my brain like molasses would someday, somehow be spilled out onto a page and once that happened, no one would ever laugh at me or call my stupid or freak or clumsy ever again. Now my dreams are dead. There are only nightmares. And these nightmares are the worst kind of nightmares because they are true and they are worse than anything I could have imagined happening. Worse than being called stupid all my life worse than being forgotten, worse even than being beaten up and left in an alley somewhere. Now people do know my name. It’s been all over the
    news for the past two years. But not the way I wanted it. Now complete strangers hate me. As soon as they hear my name the want to either swear or vomit. Maybe both. My name will never by spoken with dignity or awe. The molasses in my brain will never spill over into a great novel or screenplay, or even alphabet soup. For the rest of my life I am doomed to be known as only one thing: The guy who murdered his best friend.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      OK, Jessica, I assume you’re sincere in wanting constructive input. This doesn’t need criticism as much as it needs cutting.

      As this isn’t a Word program it doesn’t lend itself to highlighting, etc., so just compare my abbreviated version to your original.

      “Day 701,” I scratch on the yellow legal pad with my pencil stub. I always intend to write more, but it would always be the same: “What was I thinking?”

      Before my life lost all meaning, all I remember is my first week of college—which was also my last. I told myself over and over it was my decision to drop out, but that isn’t true. I listened to the voices that said I would fail. No matter how hard I tried to stop counting desks and focus on the lecture, I always failed.

      And then there was her, telling me I was selfish. And I believed her.

      Back before the darkness took over, I dreamed I would be great, admired, my name spoken with awe. The words that clogged my brain like molasses would someday spill onto a page and no one would ever laugh at me or call me stupid again.

      Now my dream has become the worst kind of nightmare, because it is true. Now people do know my name. I am the man who murdered his best friend.

      • Jessica Seale

        Thanks, Jerry, for showing me how my first page would look like without all the nonessential details. I aspire to learn to do this kind of thorough cutting myself in the future. Right now, it seems like a painful operation I cannot bring myself to perform. Seeing the essential words stand on their own like this, though, helps me see the power of less is more. Thanks again.

        • Jerry B Jenkins

          That’s what will make all the difference, and it’s what I teach every day at http://www.JerrysGuild.com Not trying to sell here, just sayin’. :)

          • Jessica Seale

            I was able to be a part of that first workshop, yes. I remember you sharing the first page of your book in progress. I haven’t had time to look at the pdf in depth, but I will definitely do that. Thanks. One questions I have though, about the excerpt I posted is, do you think an editor would keep reading? I am leaning toward making it a short story and using a different approach for my novel because there seems to be little room for story development. The character is in prison. He’s not getting out anytime soon. I know what I want to happen which will change him somewhat, but it’s not enough to fill a novel. If I could have your thoughts on this, I promise I will move on from this thread. I know you’re a busy person.

          • Jerry B Jenkins

            Actually, I like the idea of a short story here. Good thinking. And it’ll be good training.

  • Augustine Kanjia

    As I read the simple story structure that changed your life, I imagined my own main character in my intended book. I have a clearer idea now as to how make your characters seem real even when a fiction. I imagine giving my main character the hardest of times in his path to the end of the book. I find this very valuable. I have gained a lot from all you have been saying and teaching, may God bless your effort, amen.
    A question Jerry! If it is a memoire, does creating trouble for the main character fit in here? My first book will be a touching memoire of me and the role of my grandmother in my life. My grandmother is a hero in the book due to her sacrifices for me, but could not survive in the war I escaped from in Sierra Leone. She means so much to me and my life and where I find myself today, free and growing.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      No, if it’s a memoir you don’t create trouble, you tell the truth. The story structure is for fiction, but it can inform your nonfiction by influencing how you decide to tell the story. Naturally there is trouble in your history, so outline the story to make it as compelling as possible to the reader. But, as I say,don’t create or invent things. The truth can be even more impressive BECAUSE it’s true.

  • Elizabeth

    “How to become a ferocious self-editor” is not on PDF format, is it?

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Yes, it is, as are all the Guild’s features.

      • Elizabeth

        Thanks.

  • Elizabeth

    Just for the record Grammarly was open but dead and that is the reason it did not detect verb agreement. Overall, I think it is a great program and I think I needed to clarify that, otherwise writers could be missing this app.

  • Lee

    Hello Sir, I really liked this post. I was wondering if you can apply the same principles if you are trying to focus on short stories or even flash fiction?
    I am a fledgling writer, and I’m trying to learn to right short, meaningful stories that resonate with people.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      You can, Lee, but it’s a little different. In a novel you have 300-500 pp. of ms. to keep complicating your hero’s life and making things worse as he tries to remedy the situation. In a short story, and especially in flash fiction, this would need to be vastly telescoped so you can be catapulted quickly into your denouement, climax, and conclusion. But the general structure still works, yes. Plunge, complicate, get to what appears hopeless, and then have the hero win the day based on his character development as a result of that.

      • Lee

        Thanks for replying. That’s a lot of help.

  • Lanny Bivens

    This sounds so simple. I have a lead character/hero in mind but I don’t know really where to go from there. I am having trouble introducing characters and completing scenes. I actually don’t have other characters to speak of. Can you help me with some direction?

  • Cathy Gross

    Hi Jerry! Here is my dilemma..
    Setting : South Central Pennsylvania in the mid 1800’s. Main character Elizabeth goes to visit her pregnant friend Becca, who is near term. Arriving she finds Becca has delivered her child and is near death. She does die shortly after Elizabeth arrives,but not alone and leaves her child in Elizabeth’s care pending the husbands arrival home. James, the husband arrives, is of course, overwhelmed and heart broken. He blames Elizabeth and in his grief and pain, leaves the child with her and runs away to the city. He becomes a drunkard and when attacked and robbed is left for dead. A rich woman’s house servants find him, and with their mistress, Lillian, rescue him. Lillian is the widow of a sea captain. Hilda is her german housekeeper and cook.
    Gideon her black servant. Hilda and Gideon have their own secrets with the Captain and the captain raised Lillian and then married her as a young woman. James does not know any of their back stories, that comes later. For now, he rebels again. Back home, Elizabeth is struggling under the weight of her responsibility as a parent to her brother and this new baby. Her hired farm help, Peter goes to James, tells him he is really Elizabeth’s uncle. As a young man he had loved her mother but ran away, fearing commitment. She married his brother and had Elizabeth and her brother Timothy. Hearing they were near death from a flu epidemic, Peter hurried home to find his brother dead and his old love near death. He nursed the children in their sick beds, buried his brother and spent every spare second with their mother. She died leaving him the kids to care for. So he lost a brother and his true love. He stayed on. He is trying to show James that running away is a mistake of monumental proportions.
    So here’s the problem….The book is titled Elizabeth but the more I write, the more I am unsure where to go with it all, James seems to have become my central character, Elizabeth a close second and and Lillian, right behind her. The conflict eventually becomes two women drawn to him, he wanting neither nor his son, unsure which way to go. Who really is my main character? This spans four chapters thus far.
    I think James has taken the lead without asking me! So I guess I will follow where the trail leads. Right?

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Right.

      • Jerry B Jenkins

        Sorry, Cathy, couldn’t resist. In truth it sounds like you’re writing to try to figure this all out and you may need to just keep going to see how it all shakes down. Then, much as I know you hate to hear this, you might want to deconstruct the whole thing and put it back together once you know these characters better and where they lead you.

        The story will be the better for it and you’ll have a better handle on it and them. It could be that you’ll wind up with a sweeping saga you’ll tell in parts with multiple point of view characters, but you’ll know how to make them distinct and keep them straight for the sake of the reader–and also weave the story so it resolves satisfactorily in the end.

        • Cathy Gross

          Sweeping saga? Sounds sweet but had not considered that. The more I write, the more I like these people and yes, I am getting to know them. Actually this book is beginning to be a fun thing. All at once, something comes to me, such as back stories for the servants in Lillian’s household. They become interesting people and I get to peek into their past history and know what makes them tick. It is like having box seats at a ball game, perfect vantage point. Gosh, this is going to be fun. Aggravating but fun. I appreciate your professional perspective and thanks for helping me sort this out. This is so encouraging.

          • Jerry B Jenkins

            Yes, fun is right, and here’s your fun lesson for today: ‘past history’ is redundant. :)

          • Cathy Gross

            Thanks for pointing that out! Fun lesson received and appreciated. : > )

  • Linley Adams

    Hi Jerry! I know this blog post is old, but I’m still catching up on all your blog posts and I came across this one and wondered if you could help me. I’ve had a bunch of ideas running round in my head for some time now (well, actually two different stories, one’s a mystery/suspense and the other’s a fantasy, but I’ll stick with just one right now). I want to make a story out of them but for some reason I can’t seem to get them organized. I want to make it convoluted to increase the mystery and suspense, but, of course, not confusing. Also, I keep stalling out because I can’t figure out the progression of the terrible trouble to throw my protagonist into that will propel the story forward without sounding contrived. My story line just feels like it’s steps in her solving the mystery, but not really any terrible trouble. You know what I mean?

    I’m the kind of person who needs a pretty decent outline, but I keep fizzling out around the midpoint. :/

    What I want my protagonist (and the reader) to find out by the end of the book is that no matter what happens to you or what you do, God still loves you and wants a relationship with you.

    Because this blog is already a couple of months old, and what I’ve got so far might take up a fair amount of space here, I wondered if I could email you through your guild email…

    • The best outliner in the business is Randy Ingermanson, creator of the Snow Flake Method. Google him and that method, and see if it works for you.

      • Linley Adams

        I have looked at it before and it seemed a bit confusing to me, but I’ll take another look at it. Maybe it’ll make more sense this time :)
        Thanks!

        • True, it IS complicated. His Writing Fiction For Dummies is a little easier and written with another guy. Maybe try that.