Tag Archives: story

Story structure sketch note

Story structure

Act 1:

  • Hook
  • Backstory
  • Trigger

Act 2:

  • Crisis
  • Struggle
  • Epiphany

Act 3:

  • Plan
  • Climax
  • Ending

Should be able to write at least 9 scenes with this in mind. Yay!


A Million Miles in a Thousand Years

A Million Miles in a Thousand Years

I mentioned a book the other day, Don Miller’s A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned While Editing My Life.

What a breath of fresh air!

Partly because I read it in between two dark Gillian Flynn novels, and what a day and night contrast that was, as much as I loved her nefariousness.

Also because Miller didn’t make me wade through an ocean of  inspirational cheese like so many other Christian authors.

Seriously, guys, I love God but I avoid the Christian bookstore like the plague. And I think he’d be okay with me saying that.

Don Miller is a writer, so he imagines himself as a character in a story God is writing.

I feel written. My skin feels written, and my desires feel written… It feels literary, doesn’t it, as if we are characters in books.

… there is a knowing I feel that guides me toward better stories, toward being a better character. I believe there is a writer outside ourselves, plotting a better story for us, interacting with us, even, and whispering a better story into our consciousness.

So as I was writing my novel… I became more and more aware that somebody was writing me. So I started listening to the Voice, or rather, I started calling it the Voice and admitting there was a writer. I admitted something other than me was showing a better way. And when I did this, I realized the Voice, the Writer who was not me, was trying to make a better story, a more meaningful series of experiences I could live through.

Miller calls himself “a tree in a story about a forest.” He recognizes the arrogance of living as though you’re the main character of the greatest story every told. But he also appreciates the value he does have in the narrative, and takes joy in his supporting role. “The story of the forest is better than the story of the tree.”

Blue Like Jazz

The chapters have fun names like “My Real Life Was Boring” and “Squeezing the Cat.” Each chapter weaves together humor with inspiration; anecdotes of real-life friends who are intentionally living great stories with the lessons learned while turning his best-seller Blue Like Jazz into a movie.

The message is simple: live a better story. “Things get better when you’re living a better story.” And it inspired me to want to do it. But how? The execution isn’t always so easy.

Thankfully, Miller has a few tips:

1. Face your fear.

…the great stories go to those who don’t give in to fear.
The most often repeated commandment in the Bible is “Do not fear.” It’s in there over two hundred times. That means a couple of things, if you think about it. It means we are going to be afraid, and it means we shouldn’t let fear boss us around. Before I realized we were supposed to fight fear, I thought of fear as a subtle suggestion in our subconscious designed to keep us safe, or more important, keep us from getting humiliated. And I guess it serves that purpose. But fear isn’t only a guide to keep us safe; it’s also a manipulative emotion that can trick us into living a boring life.

2. Know what you want.

The reason our lives seem so muddled is because we keep walking into scenes in which we, along with the people around us, have no clear idea what we want.

3. Own your own happiness. Let everyone else off the hook.

When you stop expecting people to be perfect, you can like them for who they are. And when you stop expecting material possessions to complete you, you’d be surprised at how much pleasure you get in material possessions. And when you stop expecting God to end all your troubles, you’d be surprised how much you like spending time with God.

4. Don’t give up.

…we had to paddle for hours through the pitch black, and in the middle the inlet was so large and the dark was so dark we couldn’t make out either shore…
I think this is when most people give up on their stories.
[Robert McKee] said, “Writing a story isn’t about making your peaceful fantasies come true. The whole point of the story is the character arc. You didn’t think joy could change a person, did you? Joy is what you feel when the conflict is over. But it’s conflict that changes a person.
“You put your characters through hell. You put them through hell. That’s the only way we change.”

Great story

I like my story.

I like writing it, thinking about it, trying out new ways of telling it, talking about it, laboring over it. I like reading advice— ‘If you don’t love writing it, your readers won’t love reading it’— and thinking, “I LOVE THIS! You guys are going to die when you read this!” I like the excitement of crafting a great scene and thinking, yeah, nailed it.

“All of us are living stories, and those stories teach other people to live stories. And what our stories are about matters, not just for us but for the world.”

Lately I’ve had a few reminders that I’ve been neglecting my story. The one I’m living.

My life-story students and co-stars.
My life-story students and co-stars.

My kindergartener isn’t a super reader, but he’s on the verge. My too-smart-for-their-own-good older boys didn’t get straight As on their last report card, but if we bust our butts now, they can finish strong. I haven’t danced with Punk in two months, and I miss him. I’m up against a deadline and only have one of three articles done for the newspaper– it’s good, but you know.

Something’s got to give.

I’ve got to “live a better story.”

Uncle John deserves a mention, since I didn’t chime in with a week 16 review last Tuesday. After much deliberation, I’ve decided to take a 3 week hiatus from writing a good story, in order to live a good story. I’ll be posting more about great stories I’m reading, great stories I’m living, and great novel ideas I’ll get back to sweating over when school’s done.

“A writer of fiction can control all those elements, but as real life protagonists we can control only what we do and say, what choices we make, what words we say. The rest is up to fate.”

My junior farmers, planting corn at the community food bank garden 5/20/13
My junior farmers planting corn at the community food bank garden 5/20/13

I chose to be a wife. Then a mom. Then a teacher, journalist, speaker. Author is my goal, but those other stories are good ones, too, and their chapters aren’t over. I still have goals for those roles.

For the next 3 weeks, I intend to co-star in some memorable scenes: band and orchestra concerts… community service at a women’s prison… a birthday party. I will speak publicly (twice) and (not) freak out on stage. I will go to the beach, to the park, and to graduations. I will live a story worth writing about. I will continue to dabble at my novel, because I can’t leave it alone for more than a day or two. And because I sense there is material out there– stuff I don’t want to miss; stuff that will enrich and enliven the novel I want so much to write.

In 3 weeks, I will go back at it hard and fast, because a great story deserves to be told.

A great story also deserves to be lived.

“Once I understood the power of story in my personal life, I wanted to know more about how to create a good one… In a way, I’d started a new story about trying to find a story, and so I didn’t need to escape my boring life anymore. I was a character who wanted something, and well, that’s half the battle.”

I like my story.


*all quotes from Don Miller’s A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. He inspires me to live a better story.

Six Tics to Fix

6 must be my lucky number lately.

I propose a toast to another great 6-pack, this one from Blake Snyder’s screenwriting bible, Save the Cat. The number 6 is arbitrary– make it 5, 9, or heck, 87 if you’re feelin’ ornery– but the idea is this:

In the setup to your story, introduce 6 problems that need to be solved by the finale.  The conflicts can be internal or external, and involve your main character. Other characters have their issues, too, which will overlap and interfere with your hero’s goals.

The dilemmas can be physical, metaphysical, philosophical, intellectual, serious, comical. Mild disagreements or all out war.


1. Tics. The story opens on a family arguing about what to do with their backyard. John wants to build a greenhouse. Jane’s thinking a fire pit. Jen and Jan are begging for a trampoline.

2. Tricks. The conflict develops or escalates throughout the story. John is a loner and doesn’t want Jane entertaining a bunch of tipsy women in his garden. Jane doesn’t appreciate John’s green thumb and insists he doesn’t need another mancave when he’s already got the basement. The kids are constantly jumping on the furniture in the living room, annoying the hell out of everyone.

3. Bricks. Add five more conflicts. I’m thinking one of each— wreak the whole spectrum of havoc on our hero. It’ll make him seem well-rounded.

Maybe John is your main character. He suspects his boss of shady dealings. He’s got a crush on one of Jane’s friends. He’s in a neck brace from when Jan and Jen jumped on his back. His orchids have aphids.

4. Fix. In the end it must be resolved. Maybe a meteor lands in their yard and leaves a crater and everyone agrees a swimming pool would be best. Whatever.

Mixed juice

Consider the classic struggles in storytelling.
Here are 6 (six again!):

  • man v. man
  • man v. self
  • man v. nature
  • man v. society
  • man v. God
  • good v. evil


Now grab a martini shaker, your six problems and some fancy glasses.

Depending on your genre and tone, the conflict cocktail you concoct can be anything from a harrowing tale of “from bad to worse” to a running gag that (hopefully) gets funnier the further you go along. Make John’s life a waking nightmare or a series of comic mishaps. I recommend 50% alcohol and not too sweet, but hey, you’re the story Mixologist here.

Drop that meteor on his prize orchid.

Then shake, not stir, your ingredients together and serve with salty snacks that keep readers glued to their barstools and drinking in your brilliance until last call.