Guest Post: Claire Light on How to Put Together a Story

Due to boring circumstances beyond my control, I will not be online much for awhile. Fortunately I’ve been able to line up a number of stellar guests to fill in for me. Most are writers, but I also thought it would be fun to get some publishing types to explain what it is they do, teach you some more about the industry, and answer your questions, as well as one or two bloggers.

Claire Light is many things including a writer, a blogger extraordinaire, and a teacher. She provides this blog with its first guest post on how to write, which is odd. I was kind of expecting that there’d have been more than one by now. See what happens when you give people a free reign? But it’s worth the wait because this is a most excellent post on structure. Something I find it very hard to articulate my thoughts on. Thank you, Claire!

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Claire Light is a writer and freelance nonprofit hack living in the San Francisco Bay Area. She has a cat who’s allergic to people (although he really likes them) and she sometimes teaches creative writing to unwary victims. Her first collection of short stories, Slightly Behind and to the Left, was just released by Aqueduct Press in December.

Claire says:

Hi everyone! I’m thrilled to be posting on Justine’s blog, which I read religiously. Justine was one of the folks who got me reading YA again, after a long hiatus of absurd adulthood, and I find her blog just as entertaining and interesting and fun as her books.

I thought I’d bust out something today from my writing classes (for you budding writers out there.) That’s right, I’m teaching (FREE!) writing classes in Oakland, California through the Oakland Word program. This program is a (FREE!) gift of the Oakland Library (and the California State Library) because they are awesome. Libraries are truly Our Friends, people. So if any of you are in Oakland or the East Bay and want to take a class, you can sign up for our second session here for FREE! (but you do have to sign up. By the way, we have classes for adults and teens.)

I’m teaching a fiction class and a memoir (or “life stories”) class, but what I’m REALLY teaching in both cases is how to put together a story. Because whether you’re writing about “true” things that happened to you, or whether you’re making sh%t up, your readers sorta kinda expect you to write the story in a recognizable story shape. Stories are shapes that information (about what we think life is) comes in that make the information easy for us to take in, pick apart, and digest. We learn the story shape in school, and by reading lots of books. So your readers are primed and ready to receive stories, and your readers know when a story is shaped right and when it’s not (and will throw fits when it’s not.) Sometimes writers deliberately distort story shapes (the way Justine did with Liar) just to make things interesting.

But to mess with things in that way, you have to know what the “proper” story structure is, at least, what it is in our storytelling tradition. Now, when I say “our tradition,” let’s be clear, I’m talking about a western, primarily European tradition of storytelling that goes back over 2000 years to Aristotle (or back even farther than that, but Aristotle wrote the first creative writing manual about it.) We’ve altered, added to, and refined this tradition along the way, certainly. But the way James Cameron shaped Avatar is still pretty frakkin close to how Homer (if he existed) shaped The Iliad. (footnote: This western tradition persists in the US and other former European colonies, despite their increasing multiculturalism. And this tradition is making inroads into nonwestern storytelling traditions through the movies (and TV and books) that are exported all over the world. Folks from other cultures often add aspects of their own storytelling traditions to the western tradition. But what rules on English-language bookshelves is largely western storytelling.)

At the heart of both of these stories, and of most of the stories you read in our tradition, is conflict. Conflict, simply put, is where someone wants something and can’t get it, at least not immediately. Now maybe they can’t get it because someone else wants it and is fighting them for it (Avatar, The Iliad .) Or maybe they can’t get it because it’s hiding far away somewhere and they have to Have Adventures before they can get it Lord of the Rings, Holy Grail romances.) Or maybe they can’t get it because they’re crazy neurotics who love to make things difficult for themselves (any Woody Allen movie, the story of my life.) But you can reduce almost any story down to a formula: desire + obstacle = conflict. Keep in mind, of course, that the best stories are complex and will have more than one conflict, or will have conflicts going in all directions among many different characters, or will have the same set of conflicts repeat again and again in different ways.

Take the movie The Matrix for example. (If you haven’t seen it, go see it immediately! Whether you like it or not, it was a game-changer in filmic storytelling.) The core desire is Neo’s desire to understand reality. The core obstacle to his understanding is the Matrix and the beings who created it. So the core conflict is Neo’s quest to understand reality in the face of the massive illusion that is the Matrix and the resistance of the creepy Agents. The story starts out with Neo’s feeling that something is wrong with the world, and his search (mostly on the internet) for clues as to what that is. Once Neo meets up with Morpheus and Trinity and the rebels and learns about the Matrix, his quest then becomes to understand reality by learning to control the Matrix.

The desire + the obstacle necessitates action. The protagonist must take some action to overcome the obstacle, and achieve the desire. Neo must take action to overcome his initial obstacle, which is his inability to find out what the Matrix is. He overcomes this obstacle by spending waaaay too much time on the internet and not sleeping. As each obstacle to achieving his desire is overcome, another obstacle arises, and he must take new action to overcome that obstacle. So once he goes to a nightclub and meets the rebels, he has to decide whether to take the blue pill or the red pill. Once he exits the Matrix, he must download kung fu (whoa.) Once he learns how to manipulate the Matrix, he must go back in and fight the Agents. Because the film was set up for a sequel, Neo’s main desire is never quite achieved in the first movie. But he does reach a good resting place, where a large part of his desire to understand reality (mastery of the Matrix) is achieved.

Because The Matrix is a competently written movie, there is more than one conflict in the story. Many characters want many different things: Morpheus wants to find The One, Trinity wants to find her true love, Cypher wants to get back into the Matrix and eat steak, Agent Smith wants to control the human virus and destroy the rebels. Because this story is a very traditional hero story, the desires of the good guys align with the protagonist’s desire, and the desires of the bad guys run directly counter to the protagonist’s desire. But the difference between the good guys and the protagonist is that, while the good guys have desires and obstacles and do stuff to overcome their obstacles, it’s the protagonist’s desire that moves the main action of the story.

So how do you use this in your own writing? Well, pretty much every story writer everywhere has had this experience: you get a great idea, you come up with some great characters and a great setting, you start writing with great enthusiasm, and then at some point … well, you kind of stop. What happens next? You don’t know. You’re stuck. You’re out of ideas. (footnote: Don’t worry. This happens to the best of ’em. Look carefully in published novels and you’ll often find a point somewhere around the halfway mark where the author suddenly gets very philosophical about what is happening in the story. Yeah, it’s because the author ran out of ideas for a while and is stalling.) This is usually because you haven’t entirely understood your conflict yet, so you don’t know what your protagonist needs to do to resolve it. The question isn’t “what happens next?” the question is rather “what does my character make happen?” And to answer that, you have to understand what your character wants, and what is keeping your character from achieving it.

So here’s what I ask my students to do. Think about where your protagonist comes from, in terms of culture, in terms of family and upbringing. What are her expectations of life? What are all the things she wants in life — not just the big things but the small things too. Does she want to be famous? Does she want to fall in love? Does she want for everything to stay the same always (a common conflict, in which the protagonist has to overcome the desire instead of its obstacle, which is the fact that everything changes.) Does she want to acquire a complicated skill set? (Swordsmanship, for example, or mechanics.) Does she want a particular dress? (Paul Gallico created a wonderful fairy tale of class conflict around a cleaning lady’s desire for a couture dress in Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris.)

Now think about your protagonist’s strengths and weaknesses, her fears large and small. Think about the world she lives in and the people around her. What do they want? Think about all the ways she can be stopped from getting what she wants: the desires of other people, her own fears or inabilities, the distance or the difficulty of achieving the desire. Try taking notes about all of these as you think about them. And when you have understood the situation all around think about this: what would your protagonist do first to achieve her desire and what do you think would come of it? Write that. When you’re done writing that, think about it again, and take the next step. I guarantee that your dry spell will end quickly and soon your brain will fill back up with ideas.

Good luck with the storytelling, and feel free to share your writing problems and solutions in the comments!


  1. Leah Odze Epstein on #

    Thanks–this was helpful—I like the idea that your protagonist can want things to stay the same. This expands the idea that the protagonist must want something tangible–

  2. Joe Iriarte on #

    Most excellent post!

    I have a question about something that cropped up just today when I was baking a short story idea. I was toying with the notion of having the protagonist attain her main tangible goal well before the end, only to have something snatch it away from her again. I worried, though, that in those moments when it seemed she had attained her goal, the story would sag. What do you think? Is it a bad idea to actually let a protagonist hold the goods for very long? Can I keep the momentum going by temporarily focusing on a less prominent goal?

  3. Pam Adams on #

    Ha! I’d forgotten about the Mrs. ‘Arris books. [runs to check library]

  4. Adrian on #

    Helpful-seeming advice; I hope it actually helps me. Now I’m wondering about non-western ways of storytelling and how they work. Does anyone know of any resources (preferably on the internet) to learn about that?

  5. Akilah on #

    Awesome post. I have taken numerous writing classes, and this post has pretty much addressed my biggest writing problem. CONFLICT, bah. But this is very practical and helpful. Thanks!

  6. claire on #

    Thanks, guys! I DO hope it’s helpful. If it is, it will simply be because it gets you writing again.

    @Joe, that sounds really interesting and I’m trying to think of examples where that has been tried before and am drawing a blank. Can anyone think of examples?

    I think the key to making such a strategy work would be to place the first attainment of the goal early enough in the story so that it ends up being just another step towards achieving the goal. Each step towards achieving the goal is followed by a bit of down time in the tension of the story. The tension doesn’t go all the way down, however, and gets ratcheted up again when the protag takes the next step.

    And do think about how you can make this step important to the story. Perhaps, by achieving the goal for a moment, the protag starts to question the worthiness of that goal, thereby introducing a nice complexity to the conflict. Or perhaps the goal now becomes not just to get the thing, but also to keep it, which necessitates a change of strategy.

    @Adrian: I’d like to know, too! I’ve never really investigated this, but I’ll bet there are a lot of internet resources. Maybe it’s time I did that. Anyone have helpful hints?

  7. Belongum on #

    That was REALLY well done Claire – thanks so much for taking the time to explain it mate! You remind me of a writing mentor of mine who firmly believes in applying a ‘plan’ to his writing. He does so with military precision – which isn’t such a surprise given his chosen profession for most of his working life.

    What I love most about his use of such a ‘tool’ to develop his yarn – is that it’s firmly rooted in the fact that a good plan – can change! It’s fluid – that’s the secret of a good plan. Nothings written in stone so to speak and if it was – well, it’s your plan – you can actually change it if you want, so long as you achieve the aim you were looking for – what’s the worry eh? πŸ˜‰

    People get caught up very easily in this – they set themselves in a kind of mental concrete and it’s really difficult to shift once you’ve put yourself in that position.

    Cheers for reminding me of this…



  8. Diana Peterfreund on #

    Joe, I think what you are talking about it actually done regularly. It’s called the “monkey wrench” in industry jargon. Basically, the character thinks they’ve done something to achieve their goal, only to realize that there’s a lot more to go before they really do what they need to do. For instance, initially, Frodo thinks all he needs to do is get the ring to the Elves. Luke Skywalker thinks all he needs to do is get the plans for the attack to Alderan. Etc.

    So there’s always that moment where the character goes “phew, I’m safe, I did it” and then they realize that no, they haven’t — either because their goal is taken away from them again, or because after achieving the goal, they realize that it’s not as easy as they thought.

    To look at the Matrix again, Neo’s problems with the nature of reality aren’t over once Morpheus tells him the truth and he takes the pill.

  9. Ulysses on #

    Thanks for this, Claire. I’ve been having some difficulty with my latest work, and your assertion that the question should not be “what happens next,” but “what does my character make happen” is a revelation. It’s clear now that I’ve been thinking about things the wrong way.

  10. claire on #

    @Diana & Joe: Hmm, thought about in those terms, you could say that most love stories follow that narrative. Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl.

    @Adrian: I just got my contributor’s copy of Narrative Power from Aqueduct Press, an anthology about narrative and politics that I contributed an essay to. I’ve only just started reading it, but the first piece by Carolyn Ives Gilman talks about alternative narrative forms and alternative constructions of time and reality — alternative to the western one, that is. You can find the book here:

  11. Lauren McLaughlin on #

    No internet for a week and I come back to see Claire Light guesting on Larb’s blog. So lovely. Thanks darling. I love writer advice. I forget all the good stuff all the time and it so helps to see it written out in shining photons.

  12. cindy on #

    couldnt have come at a better time.
    thank you for a fantastic post!

  13. Joe Iriarte on #

    Thanks, Diana. I guess the trick is doing that sort of thing well. *grin*

    I think in romantic stories, like Claire pointed out, the glow of that initial blossoming can kind of keep things going for the reader. I’m not a big reader of romance as a genre, but I do read plenty of stories that feature romantic relationships, and I know I enjoy basking in the protagonist’s happiness for a bit. A recent read that comes to mind is The Time Traveler’s Wife. There’s a period of time when twenty-something Henry and twenty-something Clare meet (iirc) and things are going pretty well for them, before the tension of their struggles to have a baby are introduced, that I just ate right up.

    I’m not positive other kinds of stories can get away with drawing that out, though. Luke finds out pretty quickly that there’s more for him to do after he rescues Leia. (Heh. That reminds me of the end of most worlds in Super Mario Brothers: “Thanks Mario . . . but our princess is in another castle.” AAARGH!)

  14. claire on #

    @Ulysses: I tend to think there’s no wrong way to think about writing, but rather a way that works for you now and a way that isn’t working for you now. πŸ™‚ I’m glad I could be of use.

    @Belongum: indeed! The advice I tend to give my students sounds very authoritative, but when it helps them (they tell me), it does so simply because it broke them out of the thinking that they were stuck in, and gave them permission to do something else. Sometimes I think writing is just a alternating process of impetus and permission-giving.

  15. claire on #

    @Lauren, you give great writing advice yerself, lady. I wish you gave more of it to us peons!

  16. Cy on #

    Claire! Thank you for this breakdown–very, very helpful! πŸ˜€ It seems like a basic thing all storytellers should understand (and I’m sure we do internally… somewhere…), but keeping the idea of conflict front-and-center while writing will really help those of us who get stuck in the middle doldrums easily. You laid it out so clearly, too (luv the examples!)–too bad your classes are only up in the Oakland area! Any chance you’ll post your lesson plans online anywhere? πŸ˜€ β™₯

  17. claire on #

    Cy, funny you should ask. I’m working on a website now and am planning on putting up some of my handouts when it’s up. But that’ll take a while … ;P

  18. Cy on #

    Thanks for the response, Claire–glad to hear you’re making that website. πŸ˜€ I found your blog yesterday, so I’m going to be coming over to haunt it once in a while. Really loved your post to editors about how to help good POC writers make the transition from small mags to big publishers. Out of curiosity, are you Asian too? Your opinions seem to line up so well with mine (though yours are much better thought-out and expressed ^^; ). I’ll go poke around “See Light” a bit more~

  19. claire on #

    @Cy: yes, I’m Asian! Chinese! Biracial, actually. Are you on the internet somewhere, perhaps a bloggy somewhere?

  20. Zoe on #

    “The question isn’t ‘what happens next?’ the question is rather β€œwhat does my character make happen?'” WOW. Total paradigm shift for me! Great insight; now I’m thinking correctly and have some ideas. (I was stuck.) Thanks!

  21. Cy on #

    How cool! It’s nice to meet a fellow Asian-American (Asian-Australian? Canadian?) surfing around these book blogs~ πŸ˜€ I’ve only got a lame-o hobby livejournal (mostly random translations and news about Japanese anime or video games ^^;; Heheh…), not a real blog. I air all my “serious” opinions as a lurker on proper blogs like Justine’s here (mwa ha, only once in a while… usually, I just like reading what other people are thinking ^^). I guess to introduce myself, I’m a marketing cubicle-dweller (bleeehhh) and an on-the-side freelance manga translator, but hope to write my own YA Fantasy books someday. ^^

  22. claire on #

    @Zoe: you’re welcome! Hope it really helps!

    @Cy: Cool! You should contact me (click through the about link on my blog and you’ll find contact info.) I have a friend who writes YA who’s starting a website for Asian American writers. I’ll put you in touch with him if you like, so you can check out the website when it’s done.

  23. Jill on #

    Ditto to many of the comments above. My novels are full of characters in search of a good story. I sometimes think I’m not patient enough to tease out actually what the thing I’m trying to write is about and end up sort of treading water. Or I’ve thought I needed a mapped out plot prior to writing – which is the fastest way to have me grind to a halt. I’m mostly writing about people trying to ‘find themselves’ which is pretty vague, but how we all come to be who we are is a phenomenon which fascinates me. Therefore, re-thinking in terms of desire and obstacle is very helpful. BTW there is a kind of experimental writing called ‘fictocriticism’ which comes out of academia (I just did a PhD on it) which investigates non-linear narrative for those interested.

  24. Sue on #

    to Joe
    If you have a simple story about the person reaching her goal and attaining it and a concurrent sequence of events from antagonists intent on taking it from her, you can build to a massive interaction at the point of attainment, creating intense loss and can pan your quest to get it back from there, using the antagonists as interaction throughout the quest. Just a thought. Sue

  25. Joe Iriarte on #

    That’s a good idea, Sue. I’ll have to think about whether I could work something like that into my story. Thanks for the food for thought! πŸ™‚

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