Build the Foundation & Story Will Come by Janine M. Donoho

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASince joining online communities, then enjoying the first steps of writers new to their craft, I delight in their growth. The freshness of their vision and their infatuation with words reveal elements leading to stories I want to read.

I suspect that’s how many of us writers begin. Then if we want to publish, we dig deeper and learn more about craft. One of my early ‘ah-ha’ moments occurred thanks to seasoned critique partners and great library systems.

With that in mind, let me share a simple technique for building story foundations. Since many grandmasters have gone out-of-print and indeed, gone elsewhere, here’s what I distilled from their works. Prepare to be dazzled:

Goal, Obstacle, Resolution.

Okay, dazzled may be too strong a word. Yet on longer projects, applying this method calmed my pre-project jitters so I could begin. Often I view story as scenes leading to chapters leading to a completed novel or even as scenes leading to acts with a progression of rising and falling actions. Here’s how I apply necessary groundwork:

MB Bk 1 Kindle Cover w. Ctr. LtgTake the first chapter from Book 1 of MISTBORN CHRONICLES*, Borne of Mist:

Goal: Introduce the world’s increasing strangeness via Zenadon MelʹChaime, who must accept the challenge to save his world.

Obstacle: Zen doesn’t want to believe that what’s happening has anything to do with him–he’s happy and comfortable as Master Merchant.

Resolution: He chooses to meet with the Mist-Spawn.

I know, I know. It’s clunky. That’s not the point. After beginning, then finishing a dozen novels, this process alleviates my boggles. Boggles, you ask? Well, the trepidation that there’s not enough story to grow a novel, a series–or even a short story, for that matter.

You can also use this technique for developing character arc. Here’s an example for Elishandra ser Danche′ sere Jillian:

Goal: Her survival depends upon placing Morchem on the defensive, then neutralizing him.

Obstacle: He’s stronger than she and obsessed with her; their last conflict ended with her teacher dead and Lisha crippled.

Resolution: Motivated by her commitment to this world and others, she discovers the strength to rebuild her magic within the confines of the world’s natural systems.Forged Cvr. 4

Don’t judge me. I lifted these directly from my early visions of MISTBORN*, circa 1998. With the series complete, it’s surprising how much of the original structure endured–a matter of modifying framework versus carving stone.

Here are a few keepers from my private shelves: Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain, Writing the Novel from Plot to Print and Spider, Spin Me a Web by Lawrence Block, Story – Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee, Writing the Short Story by Jack M. Bickham. Yes, yes, lots of boys in this club–but also master storytellers. You can take what you choose from them and crystallize your process.

Let me know if this helps or hinders you in your quest for story. I wish you joy in your writing.

*Caveat: I originally called my series MISTBORN TRILOGY, which my then-agent sent to TOR, who had another series in the pipeline and passed on mine. Lo and behold–Brandon Sanderson’s MISTBORN TRILOGY, which except for the series title is nothing like mine. So there.


3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Jason Heath
    Sep 22, 2013 @ 19:35:27

    Thanks for sharing this.
    I am working more and more to get my mind thinking in this structure, from the scene level all the way up to the chapter level. it’s a slow start, but it’s still a start. 🙂



    • janinedonoho
      Sep 22, 2013 @ 20:43:29

      Hey Jason, so glad this helps. Keep in mind this is only one tool for your expanding writer’s tool chest–don’t let it get in the way of a great story. Wishing you the best in your journey.



  2. cicampbell2013
    Oct 15, 2013 @ 13:40:53

    I like that you have reduced a novel down to three main points. That’s what I need to do. I realize that. Three main points: goal, obstacle, resolution…got it! Thank you.



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