Nonfiction · Writing

How “My Story Can Beat Up Your Story” Works: The Plot

In my last novel update, I mentioned the book My Story Can Beat Up Your Story and how it’s been useful to me as a writing guide. Something I should’ve clarified in my novel update is that this book is really about story structure on a basic level. That’s one of the reasons it can apply to virtually any story to one degree or another. It’s about how different character archetypes work together, about how a satisfying story transitions from stage to stage, things like that. So, I really don’t believe that any two stories using this system will be at all “the same,” they might just both have the same sense of satisfaction for the reader, of making sense on an emotional/mythological level, and that’s a good thing. But I’ll reiterate that you may have specific issues in your book that mean you’ll want to modify this system or just use a particular part of it. (For instance, he actually enumerates all the plot points you need to hit. There are 44 of them. I’ll be using that as a guideline at best.)

So, anyway, I’m going to cover this pretty simply, because I don’t think it would really be fair to Schechter to explain his entire book here. He is charging money for that book, after all. This post is intended to be an example, to talk about What Dreams and also to show you how the system works so you can see if you want to buy the book or not. And again, I discovered that I had all the parts already, it was just a matter of naming them and keeping them organized. I don’t think you should try to cram yourself into the system if it’s not your thing, it just might be something helpful for you to keep in mind.

It’s split into two posts for length: The plot elements and the character archetypes. This is the plot stuff.

My Story Can Beat Up Your Story cover

~~

The Story Question

Can Sheriff Brody stop Jaws, conquer his fear of water, and become an accepted part of his community?

The Story Question is a way of framing your plot in terms of what your protagonist wants. This is the question that, in some form, should be in your reader’s mind — the specifics of the question “What’s going to happen??” It’s generally in three parts, corresponding to physical, emotional, and spiritual goals, although this varies. Here’s mine:

Can Ristin Skuyler stop Sem from destroying the universe, find Rama, and resolve his guilt for blowing up a planet?

Earlier I posted an excerpt about sky marshals… The sky marshal character pursuing Skuyler, Rene Denman, represents the guilt. I’ve had issues integrating the three different plotlines in previous drafts, so it helps me a lot to have worked out exactly why each one is there.

The Theme

The book has a lot more discussion of how to do this, and it’s an easy place to get bogged down or heavy-handed without all the explanation, but basically the theme is a “story question” in a different sense, a question/concept knitting the story together and describing the character’s journey and relationship to the antagonist, all at the same time. You have a question. The hero is uncertain of the answer at the beginning of the story, while the villain is sure the answer is no. Eventually, the hero discovers there has to be a synthesis: The answer is “Yes, but only if…

Act 1 Act 2a Act 2b Act 3
See the power and impact of the villain’s thematic argument. Hero tests the power of their convictions against the villain. Hero now knows own & villain’s beliefs; the two clash. Hero achieves deeper understanding by creating a synthesis of both.

(See the book for explanation of the 3-act structure.)

WD’s theme:

“Is life worth living?”

Skuyler’s not sure. Sem is sure it’s not — for anyone.

Archetypes

Act 1 Act 2a Act 2b Act 3
Orphan Wanderer Warrior Martyr
Hero is alone / unimportant. Hero collects skills/items/info/ supporting characters. Hero tries to solve problems and fails. Hero is motivated not by hope of success, but by need to do the right thing.

The low point occurs at the line between 2b and 3. For WD, these actually match up to planets. (In my very first post-it outline, I had one post-it for each planet, and there have always been strong divisions between them story-wise). Skuyler is alone on a planet, Skuyler starts learning stuff, Skuyler goes to solve problems in one fell swoop and totally fails, Skuyler does what he’s needed to do all along. They do overlap though, especially in the collection of skills/info/etc. That spreads over Act 1 and both halves of Act 2 for me, but is centered in 2a.

The QuickPitch

The QuickPitch takes the notes for each act above and turns them into a pitch, easy-peasy! Lots more info in the book, and this isn’t designed for use in actual shopping the book/script around, but it’s helpful.

Act 1 Act 2a Act 2b Act 3
When an increasingly lonely and broken scientist discovers a sky marshal is pursuing him for a crime he did commit… he must race to find a mysterious alien he once lost… but when he discovers her disappearance is entangled with a plot to unmake the universe from the inside out… he must decide whether to save the universe or help destroy it.

This can eventually be the basis of your back-cover copy, but I’m not worrying too much about that until the book is done. The ending is in flux, so the perfectly enticing words to describe it don’t exist yet, but that basic decision is the bones of the thing and good enough for these purposes. I also thought it was interesting how my three plotlines (sky marshal, Rama, and Sem) are almost sequential here. That helps me know how to wind them in together.

Part 2 actually covers my favorite bit — the character diagrams! Coming up in just a moment! What do you think of the system so far?

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