We wish to write a bedtime story that will take 3-5 minutes to read, will be enjoyed by the child and parent alike, and will feature iconic and virtuous heroes, iconic and sinister villains, and iconic and cool props. We wish to write our stories fast and in bulk, for children want a bedtime story every night.
With due respect (and apologies) to Lester Dent, fragments of whose formula are scattered through mine until testing brings refinement, here is my first proposition:
Before you begin
It is best to have in mind:
- A specific, tangible thing for the hero to seek.
- A specific, tangible thing for the villain to seek. (This can be something different, or the same thing. If they are different, ensure that seeking these two things will still set the villain and hero at cross purposes).
- A surprising twist. The wicked witch is really the cleaning lady. The magic artifact is really a lump of cheese. Beware of twisting hard too frequently. If you always go for a hard twist, the child will come to expect it and the twists will be robbed of their power (this is called Martin Fatigue).
- An unusual murder method for the villain to dispatch the hero.
- A menace which is to hang like a cloud over the hero.
- The unique location for the action
A bedtime story is divided into 10-15 beats of about 50 words apiece, but they come in longer or shorter forms, which are used to control the pacing.
Here are the lengths:
- 35-45 words: A Quick beat. A Quick beat is used pick up the pace as we head into a punch. This will be explained in full in a moment.
- 45-55 words: A Rest beat. This does not mean the story is resting, but that the pacing has evened out for a moment, usually at the beginning or after a punch. This lets us catch our breath before we launch into another punch.
- 55-65 words: A Punch beat. This is where the rubber hits the road and something serious happens.
- 65-75 words: A Long beat. Long beats should be used only in four places: Rarely, in the intro, to get our setup done. Less rarely, but still rarely, at the Point of Inflection. Always: for the Punch of the climax. Usually: for the denouement.
A beat should have a single main objective that consumes it from beginning to end. “In this beat, the hero pulls the cat from a tree. In this beat, the hero is being beaten by the villain.” And so on.
A beat can and should serve multiple objectives at once. We are trying to tell a satisfying story in less than a thousand words! Every word should be doing double or triple duty if it can. But one single goal should dominate and govern the beat from beginning to end.
Every beat should end by setting a hook for the next beat. It should ask or imply a question that the next beat answers.
Scenes and Sequels
A scene is a conflict. Two actors, often the hero and the villain, enter the scene with goals. The goals force them into conflict. That is, for each actor to achieve his goals, the other actor’s goals must be frustrated. Therefore it is imperative to both sides that the other side be stopped.
A scene is usually two beats. The first is a Punch, or less frequently a Rest, where the conflict is sparked. The second is a Rest, where the conflict is conclude to the dissatisfaction of one or both parties.
Don’t let your hero always win! Maybe give him a crumb at the start so the kid knows he’s a winner, but then, until you hit the climax, the answer to the question “Did the hero get what he was after?” should usually be “Yes, but it went sideways and things are now more dire,” or “No, and furthermore his efforts made the situation worse!”
A sequel follows a scene. The hero reacts emotionally to what just happened, and then chooses what he is going to do next. A sequel is normally two beats. The first is a Rest or Quick Beat where the hero comes to terms with what just happened. The second is a Quick Beat where the hero chooses his next move and springs into action, thereby sparking the next scene.
The ideal pacing is a handful of One-Two-Punches, leading to the Point of Inflection and the Climax, each of which is, itself, a modified One-Two-Punch.
A One-Two-Punch is a sequel followed by a scene.
A One-Two-Punch has a beat structure that follows this sort of pattern:
- Rest, Quick, PUNCH, Rest
- Quick, Quick, PUNCH, Rest
- Quick, Quick, LONG, Rest
The idea is you’re taking one or quick two steps forward before slamming the reader with a big moment, then giving him a second to absorb it.
The Point of Inflection, Climax, and Denouement
The Point of Inflection is the point where the desperate struggle of the hero and villain becomes set in stone. The villain does something the hero is forced to address with finality. The hero uncovers some truth that compels him to take whole measures instead of half measures. Perhaps it was clear from the start that this was a fight to the bitter end, but here is where the hero sets his face like flint. The point of inflection is itself a One-Two-Punch, but the fallout is he makes the choice to grit his teeth and fight despite the impossible odds.
This is immediately followed by another One-Two-Punch which is the climax. The hero makes his impossible choice in the One-Two, and then the Twist and the Victory are revealed in the Punch, which can and should be LONG. In place of a Rest, another Long beat follows up with the Denouement: the victory is won, and the consequences are spelled out (“they lived happily ever after and feasted on pot roasts.”)
Everything leads the story along to the Point of Inflection, which then propels it into the Climax.
If there is to be only one illustration, the Point of Inflection is the time for it.
The Beginning is the only Scene without a One-Two. Instead you set all the pieces in place and explain what they are up to. Consider it a long, slow, One-Two. Two to four Rest beats are used to establish who we are, where we are, and what the threat is.
Here is the structure in beats.
- Rest: Show the Hero doing something that demonstrates his nature. Show the setting. Establish the existence of the dark cloud he must address. Make sure to leave a hook for:
- Rest: Bring in all the other characters. Spell out the threat. The hero makes his first attempt to pursue his goal.
For large casts, you may have to split this beat in two.
Remember to leave a hook for:
- Rest: The hero’s action works or doesn’t, but either way the Threat looms nearer. The story is now Right Under Way. We are finished with the beginning. It is important, therefore, that whatever twist we have in store for the climax is already set up in one of these three beats.
This should naturally be a hook for…
- Rest/Quick One: First half of the first sequel and start of the first One-Two-Punch. The hero reacts to the fallout from his first action first in the gut, and then in thought. This should naturally be a hook for…
- Quick Two: Second half of the first sequel. The hero chooses a tangible goal and takes definitive action towards that goal. This should naturally be a hook for…
- PUNCH! The hero’s choice brings him into conflict with the villain. The fight is joined. The outcome is in doubt.
- Rest: We explore the outcome of the conflict. At this point, it can go well for the hero, but it should usually not go well for the hero. It is clear the hero most do something else or all is lost.
- Rest/Quick One: First half of the second sequel. The hero must emotionally come to terms with events, then intellectually.
- Quick Two: The hero devises a plan and sets it in motion.
- PUNCH/LONG Point of Inflection: The battle is joined. The villain and the hero lock horns. This is the crescendo. The Big Event. But will our hero succeed?
- Rest: NO! Now it looks like all hope is gone. Now it looks like we can never win. Crush the hero. Frame him for the crime. Make it seem that the girl is dead. The final conflict is now inevitable. Nothing can stop it, and even if he stops the villain, the hero will probably die in the process.
- Rest/Quick One: Here is the moment heroes are made. The hero takes in his despair and lack of hope, and he swallows it and pushes forward. He takes a hard look at his bad situation.
- Quick Two: The hero grimly chooses a course of action and does some definite thing to stop the villain once and for all. Knowing that all is lost, nevertheless he joins the battle.
- LONG! Climax: Once it looks like all hope is gone, the twist is revealed, and the hero by his own virtue defeats the villain. Perhaps the dog he fed at the start repays his kindness with a magic sword. Or the rogue he worked with is inspired by his nobility to lend a hand. This must be foreshadowed in the first three beats!
- Long Denouement: Now that the victory is won, what does that mean to the hero and his future? Give us a nice little picture to wrap things up and give us closure.
Now my task is to write a few stories with this skeleton and determine how well it holds.