Let's say you have a lot of ideas but you don't know how to organize them into a linear narrative—an actual story. So you're looking for a way to organize your ideas so that you can arrange them more easily into a coherent, cohesive narrative.
I find it helpful to think of your story as a filing cabinet, with seven folders containing the basic structural elements of a story.
Folder #1: CHANGE
This is your beginning. Every story should start with change, something that happens to knock the protagonist off his current path. A death in the family, a new job, a new boss, a murder, a kidnapping, an illness, meeting an exciting but unattainable girl or guy—anything that changes the protagonist's future and forces him to adjust his life to meet its challenges. The ideas that fit in this folder are some of the most basic—who is the protagonist? What does he/she want from life? What motivates his/her behavior now? What will motivate it when something changes? What's going to be standing in the way? This section of your mental filing cabinet is all about the who, the what, the why and the why not of the story.
Folder #2: CHOICE
With change comes choice. The choice is your second folder. This is the part of the story where the protagonist has to decide how to cope with the change thrust upon him. He may choose to try to delay doing anything. He may jump right in and make a mistake. Or he may do what would seem to be the right thing to solve the problem, only to discover that his choice leads to new problems. But he has to choose to do something, even if it's to do nothing. And no matter what he does, there will be consequences. Consequences challenge the hero to make more choices, which lead to more consequences.
Folder #3: COMPLICATIONS
Consequences lead to complications. The deeper the character goes, the more complications arise from his choices and the choices of others in conflict with him. Here is the place in the book where you start adding twists. A villain shows an unexpected side. A red herring emerges to send the hero off into a new direction. Something happens to give the hero unexpected information that changes what he believed in the beginning and sends him moving in a new direction.
Folder #4: COMMITMENT
Now that the hero is moving forward at an increasing speed, getting more and more entangled in the consequences and complications of his choice, he has to commit himself fully to seeing the problem through to the end. He's in it until it's solved or he's dead, whichever comes first. In this part of the book, you examine why he's willing to throw himself so completely into the struggle. What are the stakes? Why can't he let go? This is a great place for character revelations and examination of the internal conflict. And sometimes, it's a way to show that what he's committed to is going to kill him unless he finds a new, better goal.
Folder #5: CATASTROPHE
Or, as I like to call it, the "Oh, crap" moment. This is the moment when everything goes wrong. When your hero meets an obstacle he can't find a way around. When he reaches the edge of the cliff and there's nowhere to go but straight down. If you've ever seen the movie Lethal Weapon, it's the moment in the desert when Murtaugh and his daughter have been captured, and Riggs is trying to figure out how to save them—and he hears that gun cocking behind him, looks up and sees the Big Bad Guy. "Oh, crap." There's a reason this is called the Black Moment. It's got to be significant. It has to seem insurmountable.
Folder #6: CLIMAX
This is my favorite part of the book. It's the time when your characters get to show what they're made of. They face the obstacle with their chins held high, ready to fight to the death (figurative or literal) to reach their goals. Everything they've learned over the course of the book—about trust, about courage, about love, about strength—come into play in this moment. They can face this moment now because they've changed and grown over the course of the story. If this moment had happened at the beginning of the book, there's no way they could have beaten the opponent.
Folder #7: CONCLUSION
This is your wrap up. By the time you reach this point, your characters will tell you exactly what they want to happen. They'll have earned their rewards--or their punishments, in the case of the bad guys--and you'll know how to give them what they deserve.
So the next time you're bombarded with a bunch of ideas about your story—but can't quite figure out how to pull all the threads together into a narrative—try fitting your ideas into one of the 7 C's. It just might help you organize your thoughts into an honest-to-goodness story.
Do you have a favorite way to get started when it comes to telling a story? Tell us your tricks!
By the way, I've got brand new books out this month and next from Harlequin Intrigue. August's book, One Tough Marine, is book 3 of the Cooper Justice series, featuring the prodigal Cooper son and the woman he loves but knows he can never have. The September book, Cooper Justice book 4, is Bachelor Sheriff, about the youngest Cooper son Aaron, a deputy sheriff whose arson investigation heats up when he finds the victim—and maybe the suspect?—is the plain Jane braniac he ignored in high school—but can't get out of his head now.
I had a great time writing both of these books, so if you read them, I'd love to hear what you think!