The not-so-secret formula for a great story

by Autumn M. Birt

I have this idea for a story: a character starts off doing okay, then their world falls apart but eventually they overcome their problems and succeed.

Ok, so it sounds really basic that way, doesn’t it? A story can’t be that simple. But in essence, maybe it is. Can you tell me what story I was describing above. How about what story I’m NOT writing about?

Many writers site that all story ideas are recycled. Nothing is truly original – old ideas are just put together in different ways with new characters. Though perhaps it is not just the plots that are revamped. What if there is a formula to the creation of a truly great story? And it is pretty well used?

storytellerIf you haven’t read this article, The Art and Science of Good Story Telling, I highly recommend it. There is so much in there that I love and could happily blog about. How cool is it that a reader really wrapped up in a good book actually experiences the thrills, smells, and sights in their mind as if they are experiencing it? Who wouldn’t want to be able to write a story like that?!

But it was the second part of the article, the formula Kurt Vonnegut puts forth, that really captured my attention. An actual formula to writing a kick-ass story and heck, it is plottable? Really?

I’m an English/Studio Art major that also just happens to have a science degree. And if you trace my history WAY back, I actually studied lasers for a time (independently while all the other high school students were locked in their classrooms even, BWAHAHAHAHAHAH). I actually love math and graphs. It is sad, I know. And um, well, I actually graphed the characters to my epic fantasy novel, Born of Water, while I was first writing it about five years ago. Graphs are sort-of art related…when you use pretty colors. 🙂

Unlike Kurt’s good fortune versus bad fortune, I actually looked at the emotional well-being of my characters, which is their response to the events in the novel. The highs and lows are a reflection of how well they overcome obstacles. After re-doing the graphs (in pretty colors), I can see they are far more volatile than simple fortune. On the other hand, this is also epic fantasy and I’m obviously interested in psycho-analyzing my character’s mental health while sending them on perilous quests and constantly risking their lives. THAT could make the graphs a little…manic?

Though Born of Water starts with four main characters, it is Niri’s desire to save Ria’s life that creates the journey. When I graphed how Niri and Ria faired during the novel together, well you can see it for yourself in the graph above on the right. It doesn’t quite fit the easy curve that Kurt drew, but their are a few elements in common. If I smoothed out Niri’s line especially. When you throw in all five characters (counting Darag who is picked up half way through), it looks far more chaotic!










However, there is still a trend. Everyone starts in good spirits, experiences something devastating and, in the end, rises above the challenges. Well, everyone starts off okay except for Ty. There were times in Born of Water AND Rule of Fire, that I think Ty is on his own journey.

Rule of Fire has its own level of chaos as the ‘main’ characters tick up to seven. Ack! But in this book, characters break off to meet challenges in smaller groups (lest I go insane keeping track of them). Of course, they start off together and meet up again. But when I break things down into two graphs, the action and responses (and how two characters can affect each other) becomes more apparent. Looking at the precipitous drop at the end for a few of the characters makes me start to appreciate where the term “cliff hanger” comes from…!

IMAGE_421714AA-9C95-44E1-A6CE-2822D30D84A6IMAGE_069EBB84-0907-46E8-9DEC-AC58A8418D12IMAGE_CF45F8BE-2074-4375-994D-A2E40C033614So, what does all this mean? Sure, it is fun to graph out characters and action, realizing how they relate (well, its fun for me). But do I really think that the “formula” for a great story is all that is needed? Tweak everything to a strong wave pattern and voila, I’ve got a best seller?

Um, no.

Maybe I should say, ‘oh, if only!’ But without good characterization, solid world building (considering I write fantasy), oh heck, even awesome editing, and a sprinkling of unique or really-well-worked ideas…it just won’t be even a good story. Keeping the idea for a tried-and-well-loved flow of fortune in mind while writing isn’t going to hurt, but it isn’t going to win any contests on its own either!

Besides, I can think of a very well loved and frequently read, revamped, and copied story that doesn’t fit that graph. Romeo and Juliet.

Of course, maybe tragedies have a different graph. Perhaps each genre really has its perfect flow? What do you think? Does “the formula” work? What are some other classics that break the mold?

– Autumn is the author of the epic fantasy novel Born of Water and its Novel Companion and, most recently, the compilation of adventure travel stories Danger Peligros! All are available at Amazon, Smashwords, and other retailers of e-novels. Her next novel, Rule of Fire, will be available JUNE 21. You can also find her online on Twitter at @weifarer or on her Facebook page and on Goodreads.


4 comments on “The not-so-secret formula for a great story

  1. Pingback: ‘The Policeman of Secrets’ an amazing read by Andrew Melvin | #GBHour

  2. Pingback: Determing the best POV and tense for your novel Part Two: Working Backwards | Page by page

  3. Graphing looks like a great way to work on plot structure. For my CW students (and myself) structure often ends up being what makes or breaks a piece. So many people can write pretty meandering sentences (mea culpa)!

    • Hi Helen!

      Graphing is a nice way to show how a story should have ups and downs while tending towards a tense build up. I’m a visual person, so it definitely reminds me to keep that over all structure going when theories on writing a ‘three part’ or ‘five part’ novel have me scratching my head. Wandering sentences… well, that is a tough one to tach out of someone! 🙂

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