No untrained musician grabs a sax and makes it wail like “the Trane” (John Coltrane). Saxophonists, novelists—all artists—first need to learn the rudiments; only then can they riff.
Among the rudiments of storytelling is classic story structure—and I do mean “classic.” Aristotle first explained these plot elements in The Poetics (4th century B.C.E.), the earliest known work of literary theory. All the world’s literary masterpieces, as well as contemporary romances and thrillers, mysteries and fantasies, can be broken down to the same building blocks that Aristotle pointed out millennia ago.
Before you try experimenting with tricky story structures (stories that begin at the end and then reconstruct the beginning; stories where the narrator is deluded, or is a liar, or has no long-term memory, etc.) you would do well to learn the basic dramatic structure that has worked so well since ancient times.
You may worry that if you build a story using a time-worn formula your romantic tale will turn out to be one big cliché. Yet given the many far-ranging variables in character, motivation, setting, events—and the author’s unique voice—it is rare for well-written tales to end up as clones (though fans of romance and other genre literature will expect to encounter familiar themes, such as the redemptive power of love).
Here then, in minimalist form, is the classic story structure used by Aristophanes and Shakespeare and Nora Roberts.
· Something dramatic happens to someone, creating a serious problem or provoking a deep desire for something she wants very badly.
· The drama takes place within a specific, concrete setting (the setting should not be arbitrary, but an integral element of the story).
· She fights back or pursues her goal, driven by a strong need created by her character and her past. Forces or persons try to stop her, but she keeps pressing forward because something critical to her heart is at stake.
· Things get more complicated and she plunges ever deeper into difficulties and danger. These obstacles arise logically from her efforts to gain her goal.
· Her troubles escalate, everything grows worse.
· Troubles become monumental, and the protagonist is finally forced by the circumstances to discover a truth about herself or the world. This important lesson enables her to break through to make a critical decision or a personal change.
· At last, she gains her goal and satisfies her need.
Here is a slightly different look at this same classic story structure:
· A person (The Protagonist)
· In a place (The Setting)
· Has a problem. (The Conflict/Antagonist. Look for specific characters and troubles tailored to hurt and challenge this particular character. Remember that an internal conflict often carries a story farther than external troubles.)
· The person takes her best shot at solving the problem. (The Action)
· Things get worse.(The Complications, full of surprises, twists, setbacks)
· Troubles hit rock bottom. (The Pit—which usually awakens The Insight and then The Choice.)
· The protagonist confronts her opposition (internal and/or external) in a showdown. (The Climax).
· The story resolves—and in a romance, it typically resolves joyfully. (The End, with perhaps a brief denouement or epilogue).
Learn well this ancient, archetypal structure, which virtually all successful stories follow. Then improvise your heart out.