Baking Literary Bread, Part 1: The Basic Ingredients Every Story Must Have To Succeed

[This blog was originally published in Night Owl Reviews]

Everybody who’s ever attempted to bake a delicious loaf of bread from scratch knows firsthand the endeavor is part art, part science. The delicate balance of flavors and textures—that’s art. Ensuring the loaf doesn’t dissolve into a puddle of goo—that’s science. There are an infinite number of different kinds of bread you can bake—banana, zucchini, raisin nut, marble wheat, etc.—but they all have certain ingredients in common—flour, yeast, baking soda, salt, water—and require a certain order of preparation—mix ingredients, bake, let cool. Without the right ingredients in specific quantities and in the proper order, you end up with the aforementioned inedible goo.

Writing fiction is a similar process. The only limit to the number of stories you can write is your imagination. However, there are critical elements you need to add in certain amounts and in a certain order if it’s going to work; otherwise, narrative goo.

The whole thing is explained very well by Larry Brooks in his book Story Physics. I’ll summarize it here— every story needs 7 elements, in this order: Hook -> Inciting incident -> Plot Point 1 -> Midpoint -> Plot Point 2 -> Climax -> Denoument. Here’s a description of each element, with Game of Thrones as an example (GoT spoilers ahead):

  • Hook: Introduces the main characters and their world in such a way that it “hooks” the reader and establishes the stakes of the story (Welcome to Westeros! A bunch of powerful families who hate each other live in a fragile peace, and there are zombies to the north everyone’s ignoring. Intro to main hero Ned Stark.)
  • Inciting incident: Something occurs that upends the status quo, forcing the hero/heroine to react (The King shows up, tells Ned that the Hand of the King has died so Ned has to be the Hand now)
  • Plot point 1: The hero receives critical information and/or makes a critical decision, thus beginning his main quest (Ned begins to suspect the last Hand was murdered; decides to investigate)
  • Midpoint: New information/action/decision introduced at the midway point which alters the nature of the quest in some way; reaffirms the hero’s commitment, ala “there’s no going back now” (Ned finds out Joffrey, the heir to the throne, might be a bastard)
  • Plot point 2: Final infusion of critical action/info/decision which again alters the nature of the quest, putting the hero in his final state before the climax; often accompanied by the “long, dark teatime of the soul,” a painful loss or reckoning which forces the hero to confront his inner demons (The King dies, putting Joffrey on the throne; Ned decides to oppose the ascension)
  • Climax: The hero faces the antagonistic forces a final time (Ned publicly reveals what he knows; gets his head chopped off for his trouble)
  • Denoument: Closing action (Westeros goes to war; basis for series story arc established)

This is the very basic structure that nearly every (good) story since the beginning of time follows. Try to ID how your favorite stories follow this recipe—it’s a fun exercise! You can attempt to stray from this formula, BUT—to go back to the cooking analogy—you need to be a master baker in order to end up with edible results. For instance, if you decide you’re not going to use yeast, you’d better have some other way to make the bread rise, or no one will eat what you’re serving.

We can break the recipe down further and go into a LOT more detail…which I’ll do in Baking Literary Bread Part 2 and Part 3!


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