That’s how many acts of invention a story needs.
We can look at any story, any story that is a story, at least, and reel them off. Without fail, they’ll be there. They are all discreet. They all require a new idea, or the development of an old idea into a new idea. They are the ingredients in the cake, mixed and baked according to recipe, flavored with the writer’s voice, that build a living breathing story out of a bunch of bits and stuff.
Why is this interesting? Why should we sit up and take notice?
Well, for me it has opened my eyes. I used to write single shot ideas. Basically- there was one idea. Maybe two or three, since I was aware of the need for a hook, for a character, for a big smash-bang ending. But the other bits, the whole middle, the bad guy, the struggle, the lull- I fell down on it. Chances are you do too.
Read Stephen King’s On Writing and he won’t tell you about the 26 discreet Acts of Invention (read Acts of God if you like) you’ll have to come up with in order to have a functioning story. Read almost any book on writing and they won’t. Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey comes close. Robert McKee’s STORY pretty much nails it for screenplays.
But comes close? Pretty much nails it?
Frankenstein is built but he doesn’t live. Perhaps he’s missing a heart. Wait, or a liver. Did we get all 26?
I recently read the book STORY ENGINEERING: mastering the six core competencies of successful writing, and it kind of blew my mind. In an incredibly methodical way author Larry Brooks goes about nailing all the fallacies that writing is somehow mystical, magical, a wishy-washy adventure that is birthed from some untouchable, unknowable place in the writer’s mind.
We can blueprint story, we can structure it, we can cut it open and tug on its dead tendons, watch its fingers jerk like a puppet. It is wholly knowable, and explainable.
26 is a combination of everything I gleaned from STORY ENGINEERING, coupled with my own experience. Already I’m feeling the difference, seeing weak spots in my writing that I just didn’t know were there before. Though the book is commercially available, I feel weird to even mention these 26 points here- like they are Masonic secrets, and anybody armed with them will know exactly what to write and how to write it.
But 26 is no magic number.
26 is the number I counted from my outline sheet. Maybe more or less is fine- there’s redundancies. But the number speaks to the issue. A story is not one long act of invention. It is many, many ideas, strung together with the joins concealed, just as a painter will combine and smooth his reference images into one whole composite image.
Here they are. They will be indigestible at first. But every story has them, all. If not more. To make them more palatable, I’ve set them alongside the stages from the new Jack Black movie Gulliver’s Travels.
GULLIVER’S TRAVELS 26 ACTS OF INVENTION
|IDEA||Gulliver and tiny people|
|CONCEPT||What if Gulliver gets whooshed into world of tiny people|
|PREMISE||What if Gulliver gets whooshed into world of tiny people and must face up to the tiny person he thinks he is himself, becoming at last the giant he appears.|
|MILIEU||Tiny people with medieval culture vs. modern rock giant|
|HERO EXTERNAL||Short, fat, noisy loser|
|HERO BACKSTORY||Jack worked for 10 years in the lowly mail room, with a hidden 5-year crush on a girl way above his station|
|INNER DEMON||Low self-concept|
|OUTER VILLAIN||Charmless ambitious General of Lilliput, and the rival nation of Bluefish|
|HERO ARC / TURN||Jack thinks he has changed in Lilliput because now he is the big guy, but when the big robot comes along and beats him up, he runs. Must learn to face down other big guy to truly be big himself.|
|THEME||Outward change is not enough, gotta change inside to make a difference.|
Everybody can be a giant, just need to believe in yourself
|1- SETUP / ORPHAN||Gulliver is loser, lies his way into travel assignent to impress the girl he likes (Darcy) that whooshes him to Lilliput.|
|1a- HOOK||Jack Black’s charisma, opening shots of NY through toy-looking lens|
|1b- THREAT||Tall dude steals his job in one day, tells him he will never amount to anything|
|1c- HERO’S WORLD UPENDED||Literally upended in a reverse whirlpool|
|2- RESPONSE / WANDERER||Lands in Lilliput, spends a while goofing about, building stuff, proves his worth by peeing on fire.|
|2a- THREAT||Darcy (the girl he has a crush on) leaves message, uncovers his lie. General is getting pissed and wants to get rid of him.|
|2b- ACTIONS||Goofs off.|
|2c- HERO’S 1st REVELATION||Decides to stay.|
|3- ATTACK / WARRIOR||Becomes general and has the Lilliputians build him Times Square and other cool stuff. Fully accepts the role and steps into it. Saves Lilliput from attack by the Bluefish navy. His buddy seems lucky in love. At the end though the General comes for him in a giant robot suit and beats him up, so he flees to giant world.|
|3a- THREAT||General steps up, humiliates him, makes him the tiny loser again.|
|3b- ACTIONS||He fights general, gets wedgie, runs away, is banished to giant land, where Jack is tiny.|
|3c- LULL||Dressed as a little girl doll in a little girl’s playhouse in giant land, thinks he has found the role best for him, gives up.|
|3d- HERO’S 2nd REVELATION||His buddy comes for him, tells him to snap out of it, get his stuff together. He agrees.|
|4- RESOLUTION / MARTYR||He comes back to fight. With his buddy’s help faces the robot on even terms. Beats it. Gets the girl. Becomes a successful writer in the real world. Other dudes still in the mail room.|
|4a- HERO’S FINISHING MOVE||Atomic wedgies the robot.|
|4b- RESOLUTION||Has the girl, becomes writer of Gulliver’s travels.|
Third quarter problems
In the book Larry Brooks doesn’t describe this exact structure, but something pretty similar. I’ve already used it to plot two stories, and revise several others. My largest failing is in the ATTACK / WARRIOR stage. Too often I have the hero hit his 1st REVELATION, then immediately jump to the big ending. I tend to skip the whole ATTACK / WARRIOR quarter of story where the hero fights to earn the ending she will get.
Well, now that’s obvious to me. I have to add it in, or it’s hardly a story. It’s just an easy recounting of how a dude figured out he was wrong and fixed it, no bother. Without the third quarter ATTACK, what meaning can the final RESOLUTION have?
Other things, like defeating the INNER DEMON by the end and arcing the main character, adding the LULL before the 2nd REVELATION, thinking about THEME objectively as a combination of the INNER DEMON arc and RESOLUTION, have all been brought to the fore in my mind now. I try to plan them all before I start writing the story.
I don’t want to expend hours putting words together only to find out I’m building a tower that can have no possible conclusion without severe re-working at the foundations. I want my blueprints, my story architecture, prepped before I go.
Read his book for more details. It’s good.
STORY ENGINEERING: mastering the six core competencies of successful writing
Read more posts On Writing here.
Read more about my writing here.
This is a fascinating post. I have wondered myself if a formal approach to plotting
might make it easier to pull nebulous ideas together into a satisfying story. Maybe
I should give your 26-step plan a try and see if I can finally write a story from
the bits and pieces that have been floating in my head for years.
I think it’s a little ironic that you, whose writing style I would categorize as
modern and naturalistic, would develop a theory of plot that is not only very formal
but downright classical. Your concepts look to me like an elaboration of dramatic
arc theory and Aristotle’s “Poetics”.
In the past, you’ve advocated story-telling techniques that I would consider modern
and cinema-inspired, like diving into stories “mis en scene” and providing
background information naturalistically as the plot unfolds. Have you changed your
opinion on such techniques in light of your thinking on plot formalism?
Aristotle, dramatic arc theory, and your own writing style relate to works of
theatrical (or cinematic) drama. Do you think all literary fiction should follow
dramatic forms in order to satisfying to a general audience, or is it possible to
write novels or short stories that are not dramas in form but still interesting to
Hi David- really interesting comment, thanks a lot for posting it. I wrote a pretty long response, then figured I should just go ahead and turn it into a post of its own. In brief though, I guess it is ironic that I put together this plot structure – or at least mildly adapted it from plot models I found in Larry Brooks’ book and elsewhere. I used to just sit down and bash away at the keyboard for 2 hours and accept whatever came out without any thought to plot movement and arc.
I suppose this is me getting progressively more serious about writing. I don’t think I need to lose anything I had before- I hope I won’t, of course I hope my writing will just get better. Time will tell though, and I’ll adjust as I go.
About whether a story needs a structure and certain elements to be called a story, well, I’ll think about that a bit more and put it up as a post some time soon I guess.
Oh- and definitely you should try the 26 acts to set up a story of your own. Do it!