Your Story Template
by James Thayer
As writers, we are looking for a compelling story. Or, we have a
story in mind, but may not know if it is complete.
Orson Scott Card said, “The difference between storytellers and
non-storytellers is that we storytellers, like fishermen, are
constantly dragging an ‘idea net’ along with us.” But is our idea
strong and whole?
Below is a story template. It’s a checklist of ingredients most
novels need. We can use it to invent a story or to check the
strength of our story.
But wait. A template? Doesn’t that imply a formula? For something
as original and individual as a novel? Successful novels are like
buildings. A building has walls and a roof. Without them, it’s not
a building. In the same way, a story that works successfully has
certain ingredients. Roger Ebert calls them “the ancient story
machinery groaning away below the deck.”
Won’t following a template create a novel that imitates others?
Some say there are only five plots, and that all plots in history
are derivative of these five: man against man, man against nature,
man against himself, man against society, and man against God. Of
course, don’t have a dead horse’s head in the bed of a movie
producer who is being pressured by gangsters, but otherwise don’t
worry about being imitative. Literary agent Donald Maass said,
”There are certainly no new plots. Not a one. There are also no
settings that have not been used, and no professions that have not
been given to protagonists.”
Here is the template:
Who is the protagonist?
A. What is your protagonist’s background? Fascinating or unusual
is best. But see the caution against back-story below.
B. What does your protagonist want? This is critical because the
main thrust of your story is about her struggle to get it. Does she
want love, wealth, revenge, safety, redemption, freedom? In
compelling fiction, the hero desperately wants something.
C. Does your hero have the necessary personality? Protagonists in
successful novels are wildly diverse but, even so, almost all
fictional heroes have these traits in common:
1) They are kind when it counts. Not always, and maybe not mostly,
but when it is important, the hero will do something kind. If
nothing else he will adopt a dog, a common fictional device to
salvage otherwise irredeemable heroes, which is called the Adopt A
2) They are brave when they need to be. The courage doesn’t need
to be physical courage, such as saving someone from a burning
building: it can be forgiveness or sacrifice or something else that
3) They are not fools. A foolish decision by the protagonist often
starts the story, but readers will not tolerate a character who
chronically does silly things.
4) They have the ability to grow. Almost all heroes in successful
fiction have been changed by the time the story ends, and the change
is for the better.
What is the story question?
Novels have one big story question that is answered in the novel’s
climax. The story question is usually a mirror of the hero’s
desperate desire. Will she find love? Will he find safety? Will
she get revenge?
Who is the villain?
Most but not all novels have a principal villain. Sometimes the
villain is a force of nature such as an impending storm, or an
animal, or an otherworldly presence, but most often the villain is a
human being. Successful villains usually have these traits:
A. They are formidable. Much of a story’s tension stems from the
duel between the hero and the villain. A compelling duel is a close
duel, not a walkover. To make it exciting the villain should be a
match—that is, almost a match—for the hero.
B. They are understandable. Here, understandable doesn’t
necessarily mean sympathetic. It means that the reader clearly
learns what is driving the villain. Greed, revenge, and vainglory
Who is the buddy?
A buddy for the hero isn’t a requirement for a successful story but
a buddy is a remarkably useful plotting device. A buddy can be
a foil, can add humor to a serious novel or seriousness to a funny
novel, can be a confessor, can add motivation, can be involved in
subplots, can clarify the hero by being a contrast, and can have
many other uses. Think of Holmes and Watson, Aubrey and
Maturin, Wolfe and Goodwin.
What are the obstacles?
Almost all popular fiction is about a protagonist who wants
something she can’t have, and the story is about the struggle to get
Someone—usually the villain--is placing obstacles in her path.
The story is about the hero overcoming these obstacles. What
kind of obstacles? Here are only some of the obstacles
Margaret Mitchell made Scarlett O’Hara deal with: Ashley’s
commitment to Melanie. An unhappy marriage to Charles Hamilton
and the stifling requirements of faux-grieving as a widow.
Melanie’s saccharine nature. Having to nurse the wounded in a
dreadful hospital. Fleeing a conflagration. Hiding from
Bluecoats under a bridge. The ransacking of her home.
Hunger and hard work. Petty sisters. The arrival of the
rapacious Union soldier. More of her unquenchable and
Illustration by Jennifer Paros -
hopeless love for Ashley, the collapse of her business, the death of
her child, one thing after another, and then Rhett’s goodbye.
The bulk of the novel will document the protagonist’s attempts to
overcome obstacles. Your job as a story-teller is to invent
these obstacles. Your hero won’t be happy, but the reader will
What is the setting?
A setting is the time and place where the story occurs. Most
people don’t read a novel for the setting, but the setting can add a
huge amount of interest to a novel. Avoid dull settings; an
office, a classroom, a front lawn, the interior of a car, the
grocery store, the coffee shop. Put your characters in
interesting places: a slaughterhouse, a Paris fashion runway, the
coal mine, a submarine’s weapons room; somewhere the reader doesn’t
go every day.
Even for novels set in the present age in a city or the suburbs,
interesting settings are available. That critical conference
between the protagonist and her child’s teacher? Don’t put it
in the dull classroom. Put in the gym during the rehearsal for
the upcoming holiday pageant, where the children are dressed as Mr.
Winter and the Icicle Fairy, and are running around doing funny
things. The kids and costumes and pranks and noise in the
background during the critical conversation will add pop to the
Does the story always move forward?
Pace is the rate at which
the story unfolds. Some novels have a slow pace and others a
faster pace, but successful stories always move forward. One
thing after another relentlessly occurs. Watch out for these
1. Back-story. If your novel begins on February 1, 2010,
anything that occurred before that date is back-story.
Back-story stops forward momentum, and is almost always more
interesting to the writer than to the reader. The reader
doesn’t need to see—and will be bored by—too much of your
characters’ histories. New writers have a strong urge to
overdue back-story. Fight it.
2. Interior monologue. Readers will usually understand
from the circumstances what the character is thinking without long
paragraphs of thinking. A character’s thoughts are the least
interesting aspect of a story. Particularly avoid navel
gazing: the character thinking about how she feels about things.
3. Scenes that begin too early and end too late in the
chronology. Most often, begin a scene at the heart of the
action, not when the character is preparing for the action or
traveling to the action. And after the heart of the scene,
there’s usually little need for a wind down; no need to see him
driving back home or having a scotch to calm himself.
Does the story suffer from too much
Sol Stein said a reader is
“primarily seeking an experience different from and greater than his
or her everyday experience in life.” Erica Jong said a novel
“must make my so-called real world seem flimsy.” And here is
Kurt Vonnegut: “I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of
life, but as ways to keep readers reading.’’
A novel is an amplification of real life. It is more exciting,
more fun, more romantic, more glamorous, and more dangerous.
It is wittier, braver, courser, faster and bigger. A novel has
more smell, more taste, and more sound. Friendships are
closer, and enemies are crueler. Children are more mature, and
old people more profound. Dogs don’t just lie around, and cats
have a purpose. Everything is more.
We all live real lives, and so we don’t want to read about real
lives as our entertainment. Ramp up the story.
Does the story have a rewarding ending?
Doesn’t occur too early. After the novel’s climax, the
walkaway should be short, just a few pages.
Answers the main story question. Yes, he does find love.
Yes, she does find safety. Orson Scott Card said a good ending
will “resolve the major source of structural tension.”
Ties up loose ends. Tom Clancy said that fiction must make
more sense than real life. If a character is coughing raggedly
in chapter two, an explanation for the coughing needs to be offered
by the end of the story, or the reader will close the book at the
end, and say, “Hey, what about the guy with all the coughing?”
Leaves the reader feeling better. Nobody reads a novel as
punishment. Walt Disney said, “I’m a happy ending guy,” which
is what almost all readers want in a story. The ending can be
poignant or wistful or bittersweet, but readers expect to feel
satisfied—even happy—at the end of a novel.
there’s our template. Answer these questions in a strong way,
and it’s likely we have a strong plot.
Thayer’s thirteenth novel,
The Boxer and the Poet; Something of a
was published by Black Lyon Publishing in March 2008. He teaches
novel writing at the University of Washington Extension School, and
runs a freelance editing