Basics of writingNovel writingStory Details

Is there a universal story formula?

One of the topics often discussed in general writing workshops is basic story structure and the elements of a story. Let’s go over those first.

A story–and we’re talking a piece of fiction or mostly fiction–in order to be considered a story, requires the following components:

a beginning, middle, and end
conflict and resolution
one or more participating characters

Conflict occurs when the goals of one character oppose or are at odds with those of another. Without conflict, we have an anecdote, not a story. Without a beginning, middle, and end, we have maybe a scene, but not a complete story. And without participating characters we don’t have a story, but something akin to a report.

A recent article on plots from David Farland in his “Daily Kick in the Pants” prompted this post.

David Farland on PLOTS

Dave says that the basic component of plot is “characters in conflict in a setting.” That’s a great description of plot, but a story must be more than a protagonist and antagonist in opposition.

NOTE: The above refers a plotted story (sometimes called a genre) story). Literary pieces may follow some modification of these principles. For a recap of what literary fiction is about, refer to my June 18, 2012 post:


Those workshops will often tell you that a story begins with the main character wanting something (a goal). As he/she approaches that goal, something opposes or blocks him/her (conflict). The problems continue and grow worse (escalating tension), reaching their worst at the climax (perhaps when all seems lost). Finally, the character overcomes the obstacles and achieves either the original or a modified goal (resolution).

While this formula looks great on paper and sounds completely reasonable, there are so many exceptions that this soon looks like a seriously flawed formula. At best, this is a guide to some types of fiction. It tends to work well for romance novels where boy wants girl (or vice-versa), something keeps them apart, and just when it seems as if their life together is doomed, they solve the problem and live happily ever after. In general, whenever you hear the terms hero/heroine and villain (or similar term for the bad guy) (instead of protagonist and antagonist) in a workshop or online article (and the term “black moment” wiggles its way in there) then you’re likely getting advice from a romance writer. And there’s nothing wrong with that. You have to be aware, however, that not every story plot will fit into this formula, though. It may work for some fantasy, science fiction, and action/adventure/thriller novels as well. Some detective novels work well with this formula, but not all will (although the Sherlock Holmes stories did). A number of literary pieces certainly won’t completely fit this formula.

If you want an exercise, check out many of the stories published in the magazine I edit, Fabula Argentea, and decide which ones fit that formula of: goal, opposition to the goal, escalating tension, resolution. Not all do, yet they’re successful pieces (or we wouldn’t have published them).

In every proper story, something must change between the beginning and the ending. Most often it’s the main character that changes, but two other things can change. One is the situation/environment, where the character or characters effect a change in the world around them. Scott Gamboe’s 14 Days ‘Til Dawn is one example, although the main characters in his novel change as well.

The other thing that can change is the reader, or the reader’s perceptions of things. Rather than give an example, try to think of a novel you’ve read that was so powerful it changed your perception of the world or part of it.

Here’s an article I ran across about the elements of literature. Study it and consider how you can apply them to your own writing. Keep in mind that some of this refers partly or solely to genre fiction, and less to literary fiction.


So, what conclusion can we reach from this? First, no single formula that can fits all forms of fiction and all stories–no matter how much the workshop instructors try to convince you. I’m not saying to ignore their advice, just be certain that it applies to your type of writing.

One element that can’t be avoided is CONFLICT. That must be present in every story in some form. If that’s absent, then you have something other than a story. And you can’t have a story without at least one character or participant because stories can’t exist in a vacuum. They have to happen to someone. A description of an event or an observation is not a story–even if characters are present–unless there is a change that affects the characters, the world around them, or the reader (and making the reader laugh or cry is not sufficient).

There’s one last element I haven’t covered yet. In every story SOMETHING MUST HAPPEN, preferably something significant. Remember that two people arguing is not conflict unless the argument is preventing the main character from achieving his or her goal. And if all they’re doing is arguing and there is no resolution, then nothing is happening that matters to your reader

To summarize, while not a formula, and certainly not complete, a story needs:

–beginning, middle, end
–conflict, a turning point, and resolution
–one or more participating characters that the story is happening to
–a story that in some way matters to your reader

How you get from the beginning to the end and how you include these elements is your personal story formula. You have a lot of leeway. Note this last element. All the great and fancy writing means nothing if the story doesn’t interest your reader.

Use the principles of a story as a guide and apply them as necessary, but don’t try to follow a rigid formula, particularly someone else’s. As long as you understand what a story is, then it’s up to you to decide what advice fits your writing. Even after you develop your own style, be aware that attempting to follow the same formula story after story could result in forcing some stories into a mold not suitable for them. Worse, you risk boring your readers with variations on the same theme.

I leave you with two excellent articles, which contain both great advice and the proper caveats. The second one stresses the importance of characters.



And for those of you who feel that all romance novels are far too formulaic, try this article.



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