What are the main dramatic moments and who are the central characters in YOUR story?

I’m having something of a breathing space, having emerged from last month’s first running of The Expert Author programme, and now staring down the barrel of Christmas (for which I am not even nearly ready).

TEA was a fantastic experience: over four weeks, via a series of one-to-one calls and webinars, I worked intensively with a wonderful group of business owners on the strategy, structure and writing of their books. The participants ended the course with varying degrees of completion from full first draft to detailed plan, and with a strategy for publication and promotion mapped out. (I’m looking forward to publishing the first book shortly!)

It’s always nice to get feedback like this: ‘I loved TEA. It gave me the right amount of information to enable me to structure my book properly and to understand what is involved in publishing and promoting a new book… I am so happy that my dream of publishing my first book is actually becoming a reality!’

and this: ‘This has been a huge leap of faith yet I have enjoyed every minute of it.’

One of the key themes that kept coming up throughout the one-to-one coaching sessions was structure: how do you organize the fizzing mass of ideas into a readable linear narrative?

If you’re struggling with that, here’s one of the tools from my webinar on structure that might help: the Hero’s Journey.

This three-act structure seems to be hardwired into our brains as the natural shape for a story since ancient Greek theatre: the first act setting the scene and introducing the crisis that begins the adventure, the second following the hero as he/she meets and learns from mentors, and faces challenges, temptations, doubts and what looks like certain failure, and the third climaxing with the final conflict, the triumph of the hero, and the return home. The home he/she find is somehow different to where the story began, and the hero himself/herself has been changed somehow by the adventure. There’s a sense of forward movement, but also of closure and symmetry.

It’s worth keeping this overarching structure in mind as you plan your book – particularly if it’s an autobiography or any sustained narrative, and identifying the key ‘scenes’, characters and pivotal moments that will most effectively and efficiently represent your own journey.

Be selective: too many characters and it becomes hard for your readers to keep up, so choose your key scenes and characters wisely, and with an eye to this over-arching narrative shape.

Let’s look more closely at these elements and see how they might work for your story:

Hero – this is probably you, but it could be more abstract, your business perhaps.

Goal – the final goal may be very different from the original, but there should be a clear sense that the hero is seeking something: what is it? And why should the reader care? And if the goal does change during the course of the story, how and why does that happen?

Obstacle – without obstacles, there is no drama, and arguably no story. What would Cinderella be without the evil stepmother, or Hercules without his labours, or Samson without Delilah? Identify the key obstacles, temptations or conflicts that you or your hero face and make sure you create some dramatic tension as you describe squaring up to them. If there’s no fear or risk of failure, there’s no drama, and if there’s no drama, there’s little emotional engagement and compulsion to keep reading.

Mentor – do you talk about people who inspired you, advised you, or somehow taught you key lessons? If so, these are key scenes with great dramatic potential. It’s worth fleshing them out, and placing them in context, for example at a key moment of movement from confusion or doubt towards understanding and success.

Learning – when the hero returns home, he (or she) is not the same person we met at the beginning. How they have changed and what the reader can learn from this is one of the hardest dramatic elements to get right, but also perhaps the most powerful. Essentially, this is the ‘WIIFM’ for your reader: what can they learn that will help them on their own journey towards their own goal, overcoming their own obstacles? Too obvious and didactic and you lose the sense of story; not clear enough, and you leave the reader dissatisfied.

What are the main dramatic moments and who are the central characters in YOUR story?