Generating Story 4: The Story Setup

Okay, I lied. I was going to get into idea generation techniques, but decided to do one more short post on development objectives. Actually, I suppose this is a technique.

In the last post, I said one of the main objectives of your initial story development is to have the story to come to life in your mind. I explained that the best method I’ve come across up to this point for making that happen was to focus on developing the 6 core parts. Then I explained in general what I’m shooting for when developing those parts at the outset of a new project.

You can use a number of different types of documents to capture your thoughts on those 6 core parts. You might end up with a rough two-page sketch of the story. You might write brief character bios of some sort. You might bullet the general steps of the plot. Maybe you create a map. There are a lot of types of documents you can use to capture what you’ve developed. And often the creation of those documents not only captures what you’ve developed, but helps you develop the parts in the first place.

I want to suggest a “document” that will help you capture and develop the essence of your story setup.

This is ONE tool.  It is not THE tool. There are many ways to capture the essence of your story. There are many tools that can help you clarify your thinking. But I think this is a good one because it forces you to get right to the core of your story and clarify it in a compact manner.

An idea that’s core and compact has great power because it focuses the mind.

There are so many things to juggle when writing a story that it’s easy to get lost in the weeds.  I’ve found I become so much more productive when I know the core situation that’s driving the story.

There are a lot of things that drive reader and author interest. There might be a thematic question, fascinating characters, genre stuff (chase scenes, romantic scenes, scare the soup out of you scenes), humor. One of the main things that rivet readers to the page are the hopes and fears they have for our characters.

A reader’s hopes and fears are driven by presenting:

  • An event that causes
  • An interesting and likeable character to
  • Face a compelling and concrete problem—a threat/danger, lack/hardship, opportunity, or mystery.
  • The character decides he must try to solve the problem (which results in the character goal the story revolves around)
  • And struggles against significant opposition.

That’s the core of the story setup. As David Howard puts it: “there is one basic dramatic circumstance: somebody wants something badly and is having difficulty getting it.”

Of course, stories provide a lot of delights that require you to do more than define the person and the thing they want. But the setup is at the heart of a lot of what readers go to story for. Part of the initial development of a story should focus on helping you clarify this central dramatic situation.

So here’s a tool to help you do that. I read about it years ago in Dwight Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer, which was written in 1965. Swain calls it the “Starting Line-up.” I read about another version of the same thing more recently in Dan Decker’s Anatomy of a Screenplay written in 1998. He calls it the “Story Line.” The hugely published romance writer Leigh Michaels calls it a “Framework” in her On Writing Romance: how to craft a novel that sells. The agent Donald Maass calls it the “premise of a novel” in an interview published in Agents, Editors, and You by Michelle Howry.  Jim Butcher calls it a “Story Skeleton.” Let’s look at each of these variations.

Swain’s “Starting Line-up”

Swain asks you to include five elements:

  1. Focal character
  2. Situation
  3. Objective
  4. Opponent
  5. Threatening Disaster

 These are to be cast into two sentences.

  • Sentence 1 is a statement that establishes character, situation, and objective.
  • Sentence 2 is a question that includes the opponent and disaster and can always be answered in a clear yes or no

 Here are his examples.

 John Storm

Sentence One

  • When humans suddenly begin to grow to twelve-foot height [situation],
  • John Storm [character]
  • tries to find out why [objective].

Sentence Two

  • But can he defeat the traitors in high places [opposition]
  • who want to kill him [threatening disaster] in order to make the change appear to be the result of an extraterrestrial plot?

 Irene Boone

Sentence One

  • Lonely, frustrated, and tired of living in a home where she’s treated as an unpaid servant [situation],
  • widowed Irene Boone [character]
  • wants to marry widower Frank Dawes [objective].

Sentence Two

  • Will she lose this chance for happiness [threatening disaster]
  • because her selfish sanctimonious daughter, Connie [opponent] accuses her of immorality?

Dale Boulton

Sentence One

  • Sick of the conformity and hypocrisy that go with his highpaid job, and with a modest life income assured [situation],
  • Dale Boulton [character]
  • decides to retire ten years early, to go live on a shanty-boat and poke through crumbling river ghost-towns, in fulfillment of a boyhood dream [objective]. 

Sentence Two

  • Can he make the break successfully, when his hostile wife, Sandra [opponent],
  • fights him all the way and, finally, threatens to have him declared incompetent [threatening disaster]? 

Decker’s “Story Line”

Decker requires three components:

  1. The main character described by an adjective
  2. The inciting event or decision that propels the character into the story
  3. The main character’s objective, stated in concrete terms

You can add other components—other characters described by an adjective or other important events or decisions. He prefers you start with a “when.”

Here’s an example.

When a booksmart savings and loan bailout accountant takes over the business he is assigned, he discovers it is a bordello and teams up with the Madame using his business skills to fend off a hostile take over and save the business.


When a blood thirsty killer and his gang are coming to kill him, a strong-willed, decent cop must fight them over the objections of his pacifist bride who will leave him if he does.


When he is given a factory full of doomed Jewish workers, a greedy, opportunistic Nazi deceives his taskmasters to save them.


After a tornado carries her off to a strange land, a spunky teenaged girl must face a series of challenges to get home.


When his blundering uncle throws their building and loan company into insolvency, a despairing small town banker with low self-esteem has to find a way to save the bank.

Leigh Michael’s “Framework”

Michaels suggests four elements in her framework, although she doesn’t stipulate a specific form.

 This definition summarizes the four crucial basics that make up a romance novel:

  1. A hero and heroine to fall in love
  2. A problem that creates conflict and tension between them and threatens to keep them apart
  3. A developing love that is so special it comes about only once in a lifetime
  4. A resolution in which the problem is solved and the couple is united

 She then lists a number of questions to help an author think about those four elements. The document that could capture this is a summary of the answers to those questions.

Donald Maass’ “Story Premise”

Donald Maass was asked what he looks for in a query or pitch. Like Michaels, he doesn’t specify a form, but does include some basic elements.

 I’ll tell you exactly what I need, and I can get this information after just a few questions.

First of all: What type of novel are we dealing with here? Mystery? Mainstream? Young adult?

Second thing: Where and when is it set? Contemporary? Historical? Magical place? A real place?

Third: Who is the main character?

And lastly: What is the basic problem that the character faces?

Those things wrapped up together are the premise of a novel, and I know right away if it’s the kind of work I handle, if the idea sounds original, if the main character is sympathetic, and whether I care about the problem. That’s all i need. If all those things are a go, then I want to read the work. It’s as simple as that.

Most authors might perceive this as additional pressure. It’s exactly the opposite. What is means is that their job is much, much easier than they think.

 If you think about a query, this is something that should be contained in a few short paragraphs.

Jim Butcher’s “Story Skeleton”

A reader drew my attention to a short essay Jim Butcher wrote on this subject. I thought it was excellent. Here’s Butcher:

The story skeleton is a description of the main plot of your book, broken down into its simplest elements. . . The story skeleton (also called a story question) consists of a simple format:


For instance, look at Storm Front. (Yes, I’ll use my own books as examples, because I’m just that way. 😉 Also, I’m more familiar with them than I am with almost any other writer.) Storm Front’s story question:

When a series of grisly supernatural murders tears through Chicago, wizard Harry Dresden sets out to find the killer. But will he succeed when he finds himself pitted against a dark wizard, a Warden of the White Council, a vicious gang war, and the Chicago Police Department?

See! It’s oh-so-simple! Almost to the point of looking ridiculous–and I have no doubt that some of the people reading this article will think that it *is* ridiculous. They’re wrong. 🙂 This is a fundamental description of the core conflict in your tale–and stories are all about conflict.

Go read his whole essay.

My Version: “The Story Setup”

Did you notice any similarities in the examples above? Character, inciting event, problem, goal, opposition. Let’s go back to the core of story I listed.

  1. An event causes
  2. An interesting and likeable character to
  3. Face a compelling and concrete problem—a threat/danger, lack/hardship, opportunity, or mystery.
  4. The character decides he must solve the problem (which results in the character goal the story revolves around)
  5. And struggles against significant opposition.

 Written even more succinctly:

  1. Character
  2. Inciting event
  3. Problem
  4. Goal
  5. Opposition

I like the idea from Swain and Butcher of projecting us forward using a question. I like the idea from Decker and Butcher to use “when” to state the inciting incident. I also like adding in the character adjectives. I like Michael’s and Maass’ focus on problem. But I also like flexibility. My version uses key elements of the others as guidelines, keeping it simple and core by limiting the statement to 90 words.

 Here’s one for The Incredibles.

Bob is a frustrated retired superhero, living a boring life as an insurance claim processor. When he gets an offer to do illegal superhero work on the sly, he decides to take it and pursue a double life, even though he’s forced to lie to his wife about it. But his dream job employer is actually trying to settle and old score and kill him.  Will he lose his family when he’s drawn into a showdown with a super villain that has him outmatched?

In many longer works there are often more than one story running. Sometimes the main character has an external conflict and an internal one. Or maybe a related subplot. Sometimes other characters have related B, C, D, and E story lines. In Curse of a Dark God, for example, I have at least eight story lines that I have to braid into each other. To keep them all straight, I found it very helpful to list out the five elements for each. The goal isn’t to make these into slick marketing tools: they’re to help me focus my efforts. However, I find that when they include all the elements, they have great power to pique my interest.

 Here’s one of the “inner” conflicts of Curse.

Talen has escaped the clutches of the Mother, but something is growing inside of him. When he begins to hunger after the Fire and soul of those around him, he realizes he’s not all human. Will he be able to resist the growing and overpowering desires, or will he become the very thing he’s fighting against?

Here’s one of the related “outer” conflicts.

The Mother of Mokad wants Talen—to make him into a thrall or devour him. He escapes the first attempt to capture him, but will he be able to shake the Mother’s powerful hunter and his dreadmen now that he and his sister are on their own?

 Here’s a third story line in the book, the big external plot.

Argoth is trying to build up an army of sleth that can free mankind. But the Mother of Mokad sends her Guardian to exterminate every last one of them. Will Argoth be able to defeat Mokad’s vastly superior army, especially when the Guardian has infiltrated his ranks?

 But Argoth has another plot line for the reader to worry about.

Argoth damaged his son. Nettle’s condition is growing worse. A foreign Divine offers to heal Nettle in exchange for Argoth’s allegiance. Will Argoth betray those around him and save Nettle? Or will he let his son die and lose him to the perils in the world of the dead?

Here’s one of Sugar’s.

When Sugar sneaks behind enemy lines to retrieve some items her mother left for her, she’s given the opportunity to learn a powerful lore and use it to scout for Argoth’s army in the world of the dead. But each time she uses it, she comes closer and closer to death herself. Will she be able to survive as she’s asked to serve in more and more dangerous situations?

Here’s her inner conflict. I wanted to develop a moment of dilemma for her just as I did Argoth.

Sugar wants to keep her brother Legs safe. But as Mokad’s army arrives, it becomes apparent Argoth doesn’t have a chance. She and her brother might not survive. Sugar’s been learning the lore with a handsome and battle-hardy loremaster who saves lore users who have become true sleth. When he asks her to sail with him and his crew before it’s too late, Sugar has to decide if she will flee and abandon her friends or stay and fight and risk losing everything in this world and the next.

Now you see why it’s virtually impossible to write such a book with so many story lines in the normal 100,000 words. And why I question my sanity in trying to write it.

Anyway, there’s much more to writing a fascinating and compelling story than capturing a story setup, but I’ve found that working on stating the simple core of the story clarifies many things for me and makes me much more productive. I developed a short statement of all my story setups early on in the writing.

There are a number of ways to capture the story setup. Let me suggest you give one a try. And if you aren’t to the point where you have enough material to capture a story setup yet, that’s fine. That’s what development is for.

One last note. If you want to read an expanded description of how one writer develops story ideas, read Write Away by New York Times Bestselling author Elizabeth George. I loved the book.

Bonus: Miss Snark Happy Hooker Examples

Miss Snark was the pseudonym of an agent who I believe was Janet Reid of the JetReid Literary Agency.  When she was incognito, Snark had a blog. On her blog she’d often invite people to submit their story statements used in queries to hook editors and agents to ask for more.  These entries were called “Happy Hookers.”  Snark would rate them on her crap-o-meter, sometimes giving comments and suggestions.  Let me suggest you read 50 or 100 of those hooks.

As you’re reading, look at Mrs. Snark’s comments. But more importantly, note the hooks that excite you and the ones that don’t. Because, frankly, Snark is just one person with one person’s tastes. In this exercise, you’re not trying to figure out what she likes. You’re trying to see what story elements work for you. So don’t be dissuaded by her tastes. Identify the hooks that interest you and the ones that don’t. Ask yourself where they were unclear, unbelievable, or boring. After you’ve done a few, you’ll start to see story patterns and ways to capture your own story setup that will be useful to you. 

For more in this series, see How to Get and Develop Story Ideas

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10 Responses to Generating Story 4: The Story Setup

  1. Kate says:

    Loving this series. Thank you.

  2. John Brown says:

    Good to hear, Kate. If there’s ever anything that’s not clear, let me know.

  3. MarioZ says:

    Interesting post. Thanks John!

    Jim Butcher did a short post about this as well. He called it story skeleton/story question:

  4. John Brown says:

    Excellent link, MarioZ

  5. John Brown says:

    I just went and read all the Butcher series. There are like 12 or 14 posts. Go read them. For those who have read Swain and Bickham, they’ll be familiar, but Butcher adds his own twists.

  6. Bryce says:

    Wow, I was working on my fantasy western today when I looked at this post for the first time since you originally posted it. Lots of juicy info about book 2 in here, eh? I’m getting excited! On a separate note, this is really helping me organize and create the different subplots that I will have in this book. I think I’m in over my head, since this book is a LOT more ambitious than the NaNoWriMo project I attempted (and fell short of) in 2009, but it makes me happy to try and write it, so I guess that’s something. 🙂

  7. John Brown says:

    That is a BIG something! But if it gets too unweildy, don’t hesitate to chop out some story lines. A finished story is more useful to you than a spaghetti mess :0

  8. Bryce says:

    I’ve done a lot of work today on the outline. I started with your Story setup to get my juices flow about my main character. From there, I went to Dan Wells’ 7 point structure (remember the one from LTUE?). I thought this was quick and easy because it’s a very loose structure that gives me a lot of freedom and flexibility (I need to re-read all of your On Writing posts to get back into what you’re doing with the craft). Then, using Excel I charted my main characters’ arcs as well as the romance in the book. Suddenly, I had a middle to my story for the first time EVER! Needless to say, I owe you both a steak dinner.

    Now that I’m (roughly) done charting the character arcs, I’m using a second tab in that excel file to lay all of the plot points out chronologically. Boom, organized scenes! It sounds totally bat-crap crazy, but it’s working so far.

    Next I’ll have to summon some courage and start discovery writing for my main character’s voice. But again, thank you. Today I made more progress than I have since the last time you gave me great inspiration at LTUE.

  9. Bryce says:

    Forgot to mention, you should market this particular technique as a great way to be clear and concise when you’re querying an agent. If you look at some successful query letters, you’ll find that (In my opinion, at least) they very closely mirror what you’re getting in your story setups. I know that I’ll be using this to help me write my query letter when the time comes to look for an agent. 🙂

  10. John Brown says:

    Bryce, yea! And you’re right–it’s exactly what should go into the query letter.