Writing Stories: What Your Story Needs - Part 1

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Recently I participated in the 168 Film Project's "Write of Passage" contest as a Development Executive (DE). This is a volunteer position which is a sort of "mentor" for those participating in the contest. This is the third year I've mentored writers in this contest as a DE. Serving as a mentor has put me in an excellent position to see what stories need in order to "work." (Tweet that!)

The 168 Film Project is an organization that runs two contests: one for film producers, the other for writers. Both contests run one week (which is 168 hours, hence the name). Both contests require contestants to base their stories on an assigned Bible verse. Once the verse is assigned, that marks the beginning of the 168 hours of the contest. In the 168 Film Project contest, participants produce a short film (limit 10 minutes) in 168 hours. Teams write the script as well as accomplish all pre- and post- production. In the "Write of Passage" (WOP) contest, each writer (or team) writes a short film (limit 12 pages) in 168 hours.

In the WOP, a Development Executive is assigned to guide a group of six writers, who work individually, through the week. The DE reads and critiques their scripts multiple times throughout the week. It's a great learning experience for writers if you have any interest in screenwriting. It's also valuable for learning how to tell an effective story because story structure is crucial in a short story or short film.

I hope no one tuned out at the words "story structure." Even if you're a writer -- whether for print for for screen -- who, as they say, writes "by the seat of your pants" (meaning, no outline, no synopsis, you just follow the characters and see what they do), you still must have structure to your story for it to work. Okay, I can hear the arguments swarming, but I believe that wholeheartedly. No story structure = no effective, working story. You can argue among yourselves while I move on.

Being the mentoring guide, the Development Executive, for six writers in each of the past three years has taught me a lot about what a story needs in order to be effective, or to "work."

Now, one interesting thing is, these are things we all probably already know. We've heard them in writing classes and workshops. We've read them in books. But when you see it in practice, you learn it better. That's what has happened for me. I keep telling my writers whom I mentor through the contest that I learn at least as much from them as they do from me. It's true, whether they believe me or not.

Even so, let me share some of the things I have learned about what a story needs to have. Even if these sound familiar, I'm sure I'll say them in a different way and hopefully they will help you grow in your story telling, whether you're writing fiction for print, writing for the screen, or even writing nonfiction that uses story-telling techniques.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, or a complete formula, of what a story needs. These are just four items I've seen that a story need to have in order to "succeed."

1.) A Story Needs to Have Conflict

No conflict = no story. If there is no conflict, then it's just a list of facts:

"Johnny went to the story. Johnny saw Suzy. They went for coffee. They spent the day together..."

B o r i n g. This leaves the reader asking, "So what? Why am I reading this?" A story always has to answer the "so what?" question. Otherwise you're wasting the reader's time. (Tweet that!) The only way to have a "so what" in your story is to have conflict ... something that needs to be dealt with, a problem that needs to be overcome. That's conflict. The bigger the conflict, the better the story.

When you're designing your story (yes, seat-of-the-pants-writers, I mean you too), avoid "internal conflicts," especially when writing for the screen. Yes, there can be stories with internal conflicts but external conflicts -- meaning involving other people -- are easier to portray and to write. You can have internal dialog to convey internal conflict in a written story but, as you know, it's far better story-telling to "show rather than tell." For internal conflicts you must tell the reader what is happening by telling the character's internal thoughts. It's just better to show the story through action.

But if you are writing for the screen, you really need external conflict. Suppose I'm your producer and/or director. If all you have is internal conflict going on, how am I supposed to put that on the screen?

If you've studied story structure, you may have heard these terms:

  • Ordinary World
  • Inciting Incident

A story starts by showing the main character's ordinary world -- things as they are before any conflict happens.

Then something happens that changes the ordinary world and sets the story in motion. That incident incites the story.

That's conflict. Don't leave this out of your story or else you don't have a story.

2.) A Story Needs a Theme or Message

I know what you're thinking. You've always heard or been taught, "Don't start with the message." You've heard when we start with the message, the story comes off "preachy" or at least cheesy.

You know me. I tend to go rogue. So I disagree with this. If I don't have a message or a theme, what's the point of writing the story? (Tweet that!)

I'm not completely sure about this, but I think perhaps if you're writing ONLY for entertainment, then it's okay to not have a theme or a message. And it is okay to write solely for entertainment if that's what you want to do. But still, the really good stories, the ones that we love and that stick with us and that we want to see over and over, have a theme or a message.

And if you are like me, a Christian who writes to make Christ known, then why write something "only" for entertainment? It's a waste of my time here on earth. (Tweet that!)

Your theme or message answers the questions: What are you really trying to say through your story? What important points are you communicating? What is the message of your story?

You may not start with the message. Your theme/message may come out and become clear to you as you develop your story.

If you start with a message and develop a story around it, you may have to work double-hard to develop and authentic story so it's not simply preaching a sermon. But that's okay. You can do it.

I'm just saying, in my opinion, it's best to have a message. Tell it well. Through story.

And here's a hint: When you've nailed down your theme/message, have a secondary character state it early on in your screenplay. I think that might work well for novels, short stories, and novellas, too. (Watch for that in your favorite movies and see if you don't discover it.)

3.) A Story Needs a Main Character Who WANTS Something

Here's one I struggle with every time I design a story. This is something I've been learning and when I realize this is what I'm missing in my story, it helps me tremendously.

The main character in the story needs to want something. This want gives forward motion to the story. There also needs to be something that prevents your main character from getting what they want. This creates conflict. (You remember #1, right?)
Thanks Morguefile.com 

If your character does not want something, you may have a character that is too passive. A passive character is one who is not doing anything but has everything done to them. For example, the abused character, the crime victim, or the widowed character. A passive character is a problem because there is no forward motion to carry the story forward. (Tweet that!) Give your character a "want," then let them go after it.

A character's "want" could be revenge, justice, or new love. Or his or her want could be wanting to move up in his company or own her own business.

Now, this "want" is different from what they are going to actually get through the story. But what they get in the story is infinitely better for them, they just don't know it at the outset of the story.

When, through your story, the character gets this better thing instead of what they originally wanted, they are a changed character. They have changed. Which leads to #4...

4.) A Story Needs a Character to CHANGE

If you do not have a change in a character, then you do not have a story. (Tweet that!)

Most often the changed character is the main character, however in some stories the main character does not change but instead changes others around them. As I was trying to think of an example of that, I thought of the story of Jesus.

When Jesus came to earth, He wanted people to know the one true God (which He was -- God come in the flesh) and He wanted to bring salvation to the world through His sacrificial death for sin on the cross. Jesus had a lot of opposition -- both from enemies and even from His friends and family. These things could have changed Him, but they did not. Instead, Him coming in flesh changed all the people around Him -- some for good as they followed Him, others for bad as their evil hearts were revealed. In the end, And the world has been changed ever since.

This change is your story or character arc. This arc makes the story. It means it is all going somewhere. This somewhere the story is taking us gives the story meaning and purpose and answers the question, "So what?"

Next month we'll talk more about what stories need to be successful. Specifically, we'll talk about what to do when your main character is already too good or has already "arrived." What do you need to do with that character to save your story? I have some ideas and I'll share them in my next post.


  1. Excellent post. Thanks for sharing. I, too, think tales need a message, at least for me to care about them. And story structure is VERY important. :)

    1. I so agree, Cathleen. Thanks for the comment. -- I don't know why I haven't seen a couple comments here! I usually get notified! Sorry for the late late response, but so encouraged by your comments.

  2. I'm so so happy to read this. It's what I "preach" in my critique group and what I'm teaching on today at a conference. As Christian authors, we should be writing stories that affect a change. That give examples of how to overcome hardships with Jesus through our "real-life" characters. Exactly! Yay!

  3. I'm so so happy to read this. It's what I "preach" in my critique group and what I'm teaching on today at a conference. As Christian authors, we should be writing stories that affect a change. That give examples of how to overcome hardships with Jesus through our "real-life" characters. Exactly! Yay!

    1. So "Amen" April! Thanks for leaving a comment. I hope your writing and teaching continues to do well!

  4. Thank you for this post! It will help me get started in a new direction in my writing. I hate to say I have been missing your posts. I intend to rectify that mistake. You are a very helpful writer/mentor.

  5. Hi Nellie! I'm so happy this post helped you. Thanks for the encouragement. You've made my whole month! You know, don't you, that you can subscribe to get each post via email? I only post once a month so it's not a lot of email filling your inbox. You can sign up using the form in the upper right of any page. Or here: https://app.feedblitz.com/f/?Sub=841217&cids=1 Or text BAW to 1-781-262-3877 Good luck with your writing!


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