16 Apr

Sprint #3: Growing Your Story

Posted in DIY MFA, Plot, Writing Sprint

Last week was all about character, so today I’d like you to focus on story.  Look at your work in progress (WIP) and determine where the story needs the most work.

•  Do you need to work on planning out the story?  Maybe an outline technique can help.
•  Is one particular scene is giving you trouble?  Try using morphological forced connections, using different aspects of your scene as the categories in the exercise.
•  Are you having trouble with story arc?  Try the ABC method.

Don’t forget tomorrow we have our chat at 5pm ET! You can always tweet comments or thoughts using the #diymfa hashtag or add your thoughts in the comments.

Also, I’ll be sending the eWorkbook out this weekend so if you haven’t already joined my DIY MFA list, you can register here.  You’ll get the free workbook and be entered for a chance to win an iggilicious journal!

Tweet or comment and tell me how YOU made life difficult for your character today.  And don’t forget to grab a badge after you do your sprint!


11 Apr

ABCs of Story Analysis

Posted in DIY MFA, Plot, Tips, Writing, Writing Exercises

Today’s technique is one I learned from my thesis adviser and I found it so helpful that it’s stayed with me.  While you can use this technique to develop your own stories, you can also use it as a method of analyzing stories that you read.  Today, I’d like you to take a few minutes and read Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find.

This story is one of my favorites in terms of plot development because while it follows the ABC method beautifully, it is by no means predictable.  In fact, even though you know what’s going to happen, it’s one of the most suspenseful stories I’ve read.  What keeps you reading is the How.  You might have a hunch what the ending will be but you want to know how we get there.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  First the ABC method of Story Analysis.

A = Action.  The action sets the story in motion.  Some teachers give this a fancy name–“inciting incident”–but really all that means is that an action has to kick-start the story.  (Tip: If it takes too long for an action kick in, maybe you need to start the story closer to where the action starts.)

B = Background.  At some point early in the story, you need to establish who these characters are and what their story is.  This doesn’t mean giving pages and pages of back-story.  Rather, a few well-placed details can give us all the background we need.

C = Conflict.  This is probably the most important element in your story.  Without conflict, you might have a great sequence of events or a lovely character study, but you don’t have a story.  90% of the time, the conflict comes from the character wanting something and an obstacle getting in his/her way.

D = Development.  Most of the story or novel occurs in this phase.  This is where we see various obstacles get in the character’s way.  This is where subplots emerge.

E = Ending.  The ending consists of 3 C’s: Crisis, Climax and Consequences.

  • Crisis: The events leading up to the climax.
  • Climax: This is the final showdown, the big event at the end of the story/novel where everything unravels.
  • Consequences: Also called “Denouement” is where some or all of the plot threads are tied together.

Now you know the ABC method, I’d like you to look at the Flannery O’Connor sometime this week and try to identify the different elements in that story.  It’s not a very long story, but take your time with it and really try to pick apart how O’Connor crafts this story.  The ABC elements are your guide.

Homework:  This week I would like you to read and analyze A Good Man is Hard to Find.  In addition, today, I’d like you to take at a piece of your own writing and examine it using the ABC method.  Jot down some notes on how elements A-E and the 3C’s function in your piece.

What did you discover from your analysis?  Did you notice any elements missing from your story?


10 Apr

DIY MFA: Morphological Forced Connections

Posted in DIY MFA, Plot, Writing, Writing Exercises

Hello Friends of iggi!

Welcome to Week 2 of DIY MFA.  Last week we talked about using characters to spark ideas.  Now we’ll be shifting gears and looking at story elements that can generate ideas.

Today we’ll be talking about Morphological Forced Connections, a technique I learned when taking a creativity seminar in graduate school.  I’ve blogged about this technique in DIY MFA before, but this time we’re taking a slightly different approach.  Before, we used this technique to brainstorm ideas for new stories but today we’ll be applying it to your current work-in-progress.

Step-by-Step Guide to Morphological Forced Connections:

What you need:
• Paper and pencil
• Random.org

Step 1: Answer the following questions.

• What does your character want?
• List at least 5 possible obstacles that will get in the way.
• List a set of worst-case scenarios that could happen.
• List a set of settings where the big show-down could happen should a worst-case scenario occur.
• 4 possible outcomes to the story:

  1. Character gets what he/she wants.
  2. Character doesn’t get what he/she wants.
  3. Character decides he/she wants something else.
  4. Character gets what he/she wants but realizes he/she didn’t really want it.

Step 2: Make a pretty little chart, like this:

Obstacles   Worst-Case              Settings         Outcome

Option 1          Option 1                 Option 1        1.  Gets what he wants
Option 2          Option 2                 Option 2        2.  Doesn’t get what he wants
Option 3          Option 3                 Option 3        3.  Wants something else
   etc.                    etc.                         etc.            4.  Doesn’t really want it

Note that for this exercise, you don’t have to make the same number of options in each column.  You can brainstorm as many options for the first three columns as you like.  The only column with a set number of options is the outcome because there are four basic possibilities.

Step 3: Use Random.org to choose an option from each of the four lists.  Random.org will choose numbers at random from 1 to whatever number you choose.  Just plug in how many options you have for each column and it will pick one at random.

Step 4: Write!  Take that show-down scene where the worst-case scenario happens and write that scene.

Homework: Try out this technique, then check-in in the comments, to let us know how it went!


15 Sep

Moving Right Along: The Ins and Outs of Plot

Posted in Craft, DIY MFA, Plot

John Gardner once said that there are two types of stories in literature:

(1) Man goes on a journey.
(2) Stranger comes to town.

While it might seem simplistic to think that all stories in literature boil down to these two categories, but let’s look a little closer, shall we?


  • Odyssey (Homer) – clearly (1), as the story revolves around Odysseus’ journey but also (2) when you consider all that happens when he shows up back in Ithaca.
  • Feed (M.T. Anderson)- definitely fits category (2), but we can also view the book as a journey into understanding the feed (1).
  • The Wizard of Oz (L. Frank Baum) – again, it appears on the surface to be about a journey (1) but if we look more closely, we realize that it also fits category (2), in that Dorothy is the stranger that comes to the “town” of Oz and shakes things up.

So if we have all these examples where books fit both of Gardner’s categories, how can we define plot?  Are all stories about both going on journeys and strangers coming to town?

The thing is, stories aren’t just about people going out into the world or facing a hostile environment.  Stories are about people facing other people and that is where a lot of the conflict arises that drives the story.  And the minute we start talking about conflict, the issue of power comes up.

The way I see it, narratives break down into three categories of conflict:
   (A) Protagonist must confront an entity with more power.
   (B) Protagonist must confront an entity with equal power.
   (C) Protagonist must confront herself.

Notice how there is no category for the protagonist to confront an entity of lesser power.  This is because if the protagonist faces off with someone or something that is easily overcome, there is no conflict.  Remember: conflict drives the story.

Let’s take a look at some plot archetypes that fall into these categories.

(A) is the classic Underdog Story.  Some archetypes in this category are:

  • Fish Out of Water – The protagonist is confronted with a foreign environment where he/she feels like an outsider.  Note that the protagonist can already be in this environment to begin with and events transpire that make the environment hostile.  In this case, the environment is the entity with power.
  • Cinderella Narrative – In a “Rags-to-Riches” story, a character of lower status (Cinderella) must convince a character of higher status (Prince) to recognize qualities of value in her.  Notice also that this story fits the “Fish Out of Water” scenario where Cinderella must pretend to be someone she is not in order to be accepted by the prince.
  • David & Goliath – The underdog (David) is faced with a character much more powerful than he, but because of his innate qualities, he manages to vanquish his powerful opponent.  This is the ultimate underdog story.
  • Come-Back Story – The protagonist used to have power but now has none and must turn his fate around to resume his position of power.  Revenge stories fall under this category because in this case the character resumes power by exacting revenge.
  • Pygmalion – A powerful character “creates” a less powerful one, intending to use him, but the “creation” develops enough power to take on a life of its own and causes trouble. (Ex: Frankenstein)
  • Secrets – The protagonist discovers a secret that threatens a powerful person or institution.  The central conflict then is whether the protagonist will be able to unlock the full secret while the entity in power tries to stop him.  (Ex: Da Vinci Code.)
  • Knight (or Hobbit) in Shining Armor – There is an antagonist–a great force or opponent–and the protagonist is the only one who can stop it.  In many cases, this protagonist is not a powerful knight, but a humble character who gets pulled into the adventure.  (Ex: Fellowship of the Ring)

(B) is a Narrative of Connections story.  Some archetypes here are:

  • Submission to Love – Love blinds the protagonists causing them to do things that lead them into more and more trouble.
  • Star-Crossed Lovers – A couple wants to be together but they are being kept apart by some outside force.  This is a subset of the Submission to Love story.
  • Lost Twin – Two characters (often enemies) are thrown together and discover a kinship or likeness between them.  (Ex: the movie The Parent Trap is a literal example)

Note: This analysis of story structure and some of these examples have been adapted  from a lecture given by Perry Brass in April 2007.

(C) Finally we have an Introspective Narrative in which the protagonist confronts herself.  Here, the protagonist has some great inner conflict that must be resolved.  This type of narrative rarely occurs on its own; after all, 300 pages of introspective monologue would be seriously boring.  Usually (C) occurs as a parallel thread to a story structure that falls under one of the above categories.

Notice that in all of these plot archetypes we have a character who wants something (to fit in, to get revenge, to find love) but that want is thwarted by some entity of either equal or greater power.  The power struggle is part of what creates the conflict and conflict is what plot is all about.

Today’s Task: Examine the power in your story by answering the following questions.

1. What does your character want?
2. What’s standing in his/her way?
3. What specific obstacles prevent him/her from obtaining this goal?
4. Outcome: does the character obtain the goal? What are the implications of this outcome?

Additional Resources

  • The Plot Whisperer (Martha Alderson) has put together a series of podcasts that talk about plotting a story.  She also has a blog that discusses all things plot-related.
  • Antonette Hornsby (AKA Ant) recently write a post about the LOCK method in developing a plot.


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