After not writing for 15 years, I doubted myself a lot. My most significant inhibition was my storytelling: could I tell one?
I spent a long time reading books about writing, trying to find the secret formula to unlock it. Many of them had multi-point plans or tight structures that declared I had to do X by a certain point. But I always found them too rigid and not flexible to use.
Then I found Jerry Cleaver’s Immediate Fiction and things started to make sense. With time, I built it into a story model that worked for me and that I felt comfortable teaching to my students.
I called it WOARO:
(Want + Obstacle) + (Action + Response) + Outcome = Story
A character wants something, but an obstacle stands in their way. They take actions, which gets responses, and creates struggle. They will continue taking new actions and facing new responses until they get to an outcome that is either positive, negative, or somewhere in between.
For me, WOARO filled in a lot of holes:
- It was a self-contained story unit.
- Because of this, it was infinitely expandable and worked for a short story, a novel, a movie script, or a series.
- I could find it in all stories, even one's that seemed to reject it.
- It was a reflection of all human actions. We all have wants and struggles that we sometimes get and sometimes don’t.
- And finally, it allowed for a perfect balance of character, plot, and theme.
So let’s break it down a little further.
These are the goals that drive your character. They can be:
- External: they are concrete and visible. They could be something like get the treasure, find the killer, or marry the romantic interest.
- Internal: they are abstract and often are BIG character goals that drive us through life, like happiness, power, wealth, or status.
On a story level, they are the flag we plant in the ground at the start to signal when we have finished the story. And on a human level, we all have them, big and small.
A story can’t exist in a vacuum. As in life, something always stands in the way—otherwise, we'd get everything we want.
Again, it can be external, like the environment, or other people with their own wants, actions, and responses. Or it could be internal, like desires, drives, or ghosts. Either way, characters must confront it.
Actions are how we confront an obstacle. It is what we do or say to get what we want, and they are done with intention.
Also, we can't escape it. Non-action is still an action.
This is the consequence of an action. They can be internal like emotions and thoughts, or external like fighting, yelling, or running away.
Action and response are the moment-by-moment, back-and-forth between characters that we put on the page. When we talk about the adage show, don’t tell, this is what we are talking about.
Lastly, this occurs when either the want is achieved or isn’t, or something in between (a character can earn one thing but lose something else).
Outcomes only happen when characters exhaust the limits of their resources and abilities. A character may still want their goal, but no further actions or responses can be taken.
That’s the basics of WOARO.
I’ve never found that I need to complicate it any further. It adapts to all shapes and styles of stories and can shift from big to small, covering short tales to multiple books, episodes, or seasons.
But learning to integrate WOARO into my writing practice is the one thing that has never steered me wrong. As long as I stay along the line of action created by my character, I can always find the way through my story.
Also, WOARO isn’t the only way to go—it just works for me. There are many approaches—although many fit the exact shape of WOARO.
And, of course, there are other story forms like anti-plot, no plot, and non-causality that will bend or break it. You need to figure out whether WOARO works for you.
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