Back to the Basics

Back to the Basics
Pam Uphoff


What do you do when you hit a bad patch?

When you can force the words to come but the story is flat.

Life happens, and when you are trying to make a career out of writing, you have to write through both good times and bad. My bad patch—the sudden and unexpected death of my younger sister last month—shut down my writing for a couple of weeks. And what I wrote after that wasn’t good. I gritted my teeth and powered through NaNoWriMo, but the story just didn’t . . . fly.

So what to do?

Simple. You go back to the basics. To the standards that make classic stories, the things that the human brains wants in a story. The stuff that had become second nature to you, automatically happening . . . until you were sick, grieving, angry, depressed, worried . . .

Sometimes you have to dig into your old notes and do it consciously.

Most of this stuff I learned here, or on Baen’s Bar, or in Sarah’s workshops. These are what I’m using to analyze a flat boring story.

First, what kind of story is this? Often referred to as the Six Basic Plots (or ten or forty-two.) I don’t like using “plot” in this sense, so I call it type of story and I’ve distilled it into what works for me.

Types of Stories

Strangers Meeting
Sin and Redemption
Betrayal and Revenge
Overcoming High Odds
Coming of Age
Local Boy makes good


Generally there’s a single clear type, with some of the others popping up here and there.
I like to think of this in Star Wars terms. Very fitting, just now.

Both the first movie (episode 4, now) and the series as a whole have got plenty of Strangers Meeting—Farm boy meets sneaky damned droid, then meets mythical warrior, then meets galactic smugglers, then meets rebel princess—as well as the traditional romance loop of Han and Leia (immediate dislike, thrown together over and over, fall in love). The non-romantic version involves both (or six in this case) parties coming to understand and appreciate the very different POV.

It’s got Sin and Redemption, both the small—Han leaves with his reward, then returns to help in the battle against the Death Star—and large with Darth Vader’s redeeming sacrifice at the end.

It’s rife with Impersonation, from “Aren’t you a little short for a storm trooper?” to Slave Leia getting inside Jabba’s organization.

And Coming of Age and Local Boy Makes Good are what Luke’s all about.
But mostly, it’s a big Quest with the goal of overthrowing a brutal tyranny.
So I pull out one of my flat stories—not going to look at the NaNo mess for awhile, but I’ve got a fair number of “feels flat” stories sitting on the shelf—and I look it over.
Well . . . there’s a bit of Sin and Redemption as part of Coming of Age. But it’s sort of weak. Hmmm. And there’s a lot of the Protagonist’s POV in there. What kind of story has she got? Striving for power, manipulation . . . Betrayal and revenge? Meh, sort of.

Ugh! I’m beginning to see the problem. I need to figure out what sort of story this is. I mean there’s action, and big fight at the end . . . but the odds aren’t that high . . . unless I leave out the strongest witch . . . who really has the least connection to the story problem . . .

Oh. Wrong Main Character. Right. So the computer nerd witch is going to have to do the heavy lifting. And fight the bad witches who are stronger than she is.

And then there’s the boring story line.

How do I fix that? Well, let’s start by looking at the story structure, to see if there are specific spots where it’s falling down. This is shamelessly stolen from Sarah adapted from Sarah’s list. The order they happen in is not a rigid rule, but a fairly strong suggestion.


The Classical Hero’s Journey

(1) Start in the ordinary world. This establishes what your hero’s life is like, before the adventure. Often, these days, stories open with an action sequence to hook the reader, then show the more normal life.

(2) The call to adventure comes. “Help me, Obi Wan Kenobi, you are my only hope.”

(3) Refusal of call. The character refuses the call or hesitates to go. This is sometimes short or even implied. “I can’t go to Mos Eisley!”

(4) Meeting with the guide. This is not necessarily a guide. Some processes call him a mentor. Think Merlin to Arthur. Gandalf, Obi Wan . . . they tend toward short lifespans, as the Hero needs to take over and be the leader.

(5) Crossing the Threshold. “Uncle Owen? Aunt Beru?” There’s no going back now.

(6) Tests, Allies, Enemies . This varies with the novel, but think of the fairy tale. The character meets with three people. Each of them gives him or her something that can be used on the journey, or teaches him a skill he will need. You get the point. Send your character to school, hand him a magic sword or BFG 3000, have him find companions, vehicles, whatever your story requires for the MC to win.

(7) Try-fail sequences. At least three for a novel, some of the low points being caused by the previous attempts. Interleaving these with the acquiring of allies, skills, knowledge and equipment is useful.

(8) Approach to the inner most cave—the black moment–the nadir—the “mirror moment”—the realization—the reimagining—the commitment. Call it what you will. Your character needs to emotionally crash, then come out of it energized and determined.

(9) The TEST. This is the greatest battle. The biggest love trial. Whatever. This is where your character is put through the white hot furnace and melts or not. What the trial is has been set since the beginning – the meeting with the villain, the crossing of the perilous chasm. The hero wins, story over . . . except if you do end it immediately the reader will be upset. A gradual let down is needed.

(10) Reward. Show what the hero gets out of it, immediately. Freedom, money, kiss, whatever. The awkward version is the end of the first Star Wars movie. Try for something more emotionally satisfying than an awards ceremony.

(11) Return to the new normal.
This can be going home—or not.
Or a marriage proposal. Or goodbyes.
It needs to show the development the characters have gone through, how they adjust, give a glimpse of the future.

(12) And sometimes, the refusal of the return. The character isn’t ready to go back to the ordinary world. This can inspire your readers. Or it may be a sign that you have a series on your hands.


Looking at this . . . I regret to say that I have a massive rewrite on my hands. I don’t think starting with the haircut is going to work. Need to clearly show the (new) MC’s “sin” and much later the “redemption.”

The call to adventure and refusal is easy enough . . . and Q (old MC) can be the mentor . . . I’ll need to move up the MC’s realization of the crime . . . Hmm, tries and failures and picking up some useful tools and techniques . . . Horrible depressing moment . . . Realization and action . . . Yeah the big fight . . . Oh, oh! And the wedding is the wrap up! The horrible depressing mirror moment will include calling the wedding off, because she’s such a failure . . .

Hot Damn. I think I can rescue this story, after all!

24 thoughts on “Back to the Basics

      1. This was really great timing, Pam, thanks. Last year, I finished six novels, this year, things got kinda involved, and I only finished two, the last one two days ago.

        I’m not real fond of the idea of having to go back and revise and edit it. I’m pretty sure that I left characters flat. The action’s good if you like sword action and domes getting removed {messily}. But I think I stepped backwards on the character development. Probably a lot of rework.


  1. By the way, Pam. About a year ago you posted a snippet about a time traveler repeatedly going back to save the world. He was trying to get away from some police? Have you published that yet, and what is it called?

    1. Not published yet. It lacks a well defined antagonist. Nebulous “Unknown Aliens” turned out to be unsatisfying, so a bit of rewriting is needed. I need to make it personal.

      1. I thought you’d already established that the bad guys had a personal connection. The ‘good guy’ time traveler is the lone survivor of half of his original group. Given that they immediately escalate to murder as their first course of action, we can guess where they might go in extremes.

  2. I can relate to the problems when real life blocks writing. In my case, it was a knee replacement. I lost months in prepping, having the surgery, and recovery. And when the muse kicked my butt and I began writing again, the story concept had changed; I couldn’t seamlessly begin where I left off.
    I’m back in full-blown write-mode now, a chapter a day on one book, starting to explore a second (different series!) to see if I can still write books simultaneously. But the second knee is complaining, demanding another surgery. I dunno. I hate the idea, but I may not have a choice. IF so, I’ll schedule it BETWEEN books, finish one and not start another until I’m fully recovered.
    Gettin’ old ain’t for sissies…you may have heard that somewhere.

  3. Darn you to heck, Pam. This just showed the problem in the Cat novel I’m revising/gutting/beating into readable shape. The first half and second half don’t have the same overall story. And I’m already at 92k words, which means some hefty cutting if I end up writing the necessary bridge. Arrrrrrrgh!!

    1. Does it need a bridge, or can you swing back to touch on the original story type toward the end? Make what the characters learned in the first important to the last?

      1. The first “half” is “new people arrive – MC gets used to them” the second half is “loss and revenge,” with the new folks playing a major role. But (at the moment) there’s no transition between the two. Time to dig out the Authorial Erector Set – Action Verbs edition.

  4. Thank you so much for this. I’ve been on the 2015 rollercoaster and it’s been scarier than any Six Flags ride. Lots of doubt about what I’m doing. But I can see that I have a lot of the elements that you stated above, so maybe not completely hopeless.

  5. You’ve given me a few good ideas about what I need to do with the current Revision in Progress. While it’s not a classic Hero’s Journey, There are several of the cycles in there that are very applicable and very useful. 🙂

  6. Yeah, this week has been a bad patch. Christmas preparations, lousy weather and three nights in a row of bad sleep. Sometimes there’s just nothing to do but put everything on hold for a few days until your head is on straight again.

  7. I imagined a one-panel cartoon, showing an exasperated writer, the image in his head is epic fantasy, but the words on his computer screen are more like “Fun with Dick and Jane.”

      1. Nah, I get that all the time, imagining scenarios that should be really cool, but failing to get the imagery out. My aspirations are far higher than my results.

    1. “See the hero run. Run, hero, run!”?

      I think that’s what one calls “an outline”

      ….that would actually be a rather amusing outline to read,….

      1. Stealing this. The only question is, which MC will be muttering it under his breath, as he flees. Or maybe bedtime stories for his kids . . . or . . . well, it’s got to go some where. The possibilities . . . The first lightsaber was too red. The second lightsaber was too blue. The third lightsaber was just right, and Jedi Student Goldilocks . . .

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