How to Write Stories that Sell

Have you written a slew of stories you’ve been unable to place? I did—for two decades. I didn’t know what I was doing wrong that prevented editors from accepting my work.

Way back in the 1990s, I came across a little how-to book by science fiction writer Algis Budrys titled Writing to the Point: A Complete Guide to Selling Fiction (Unifont Company, 1994). It taught me how to plot a story, a story that would sell. The book is unfortunately out of print but, because it was so helpful to me, I want to share the best from it with you.

Budrys says, “A story subjects its characters to a process; to a growing up, or an enlightenment, or, in the case where a villain is the central character, to an enlightenment and a disaster” (p. 10). For another take on this process, see How to Plan a Great Story.

Seven Elements of Stories that Sell

Most good commercial fiction—meaning stories that sell—have these seven elements:

A main character (MC)…
Show her traits (visible actions) that demonstrate her strengths and weaknesses pertinent to the story.
In context…
Time period, location, setting, circumstances—include whatever readers need to understand the MC’s place and station in her world.
With a problem.
The problem may seem small at first, but it’s important enough for the MC to do something about—to take action toward a goal. Details will emerge as the story proceeds until it becomes “The most important problem this particular person could have” (p. 62). The antagonist is also motivated to win what the protagonist wants, interfering with actions that worsen the problem.
a. MC attempts to solve the problem using logic and intelligence, making an adequate response based on her best guess at the nature of the issue. But… ↓c. MC tries another tack to solve the problem with her newfound knowledge. But… ↓e. MC applies what she’s learned and tries a third time to correct the issue. But… ↓
b. MC encounters unexpected failure. As a result of this failure, the MC learns more about the problem—and about herself. These trials and failures stress your character and reveal hidden facets not shown before. →d. MC fails again, learning even more about the problem. →f. MC fails once more, miserably. ↓
MC experiences victory or death.
“At the last possible moment, wagering everything in a do-or-die situation, the hero wins” (p. 12). If a villain, the MC experiences defeat because of a fatal character flaw.
The outcome is validated.
An independent authority—another character or the narrator—confirms that the story is indeed over: “The monster is finally dead!”

The Seven Elements in Three-act Structure

A story must have a beginning, a middle, and an ending. In each of these three customary acts, you must include certain elements:

The Beginning

1, 2, and 3 can be presented in any order. But all three must be included. Budrys states that “The purpose of the beginning is to lay the ground rules; establish the (1) character (2) in context (3) with a problem, and then go on” (p. 11).

After you have presented 1, 2, and 3 to readers, the beginning is over. Every incident and action in the middle and ending must adhere to the rules you set up in the beginning. In the rest of the story, you cannot violate these rules or the world you’ve established. “If you do,” Budrys warns, “you ‘invalidate’ the story” (p. 62).

The Middle

The middle is where the story develops. 4a is the MC’s attempt to solve the problem using what she believes she understands about the situation and her own resources. At this juncture, the character doesn’t think the problem is overwhelming. This is because she doesn’t fully understand its nature.

The MC encounters unexpected failure in 5b. She also may experience partial success toward her goal but with another complication cropping up. “[I]f the character could solve the problem immediately,” Budrys admits, “it wasn’t much of a problem” (p. 11). Therefore, despite how sensible the character’s effort to resolve the issue, through failure she learns more about the issue and herself.

During these attempts, the problem progressively worsens, and you must put your character under pressure to reveal more facets that fit her. She reaches deeper inside herself, tries to fix the problem again (4c), and fails again (5d). And again (4e and 5f). Three times.

Why three times? Budrys explains:

Because anything less is unsatisfying, because anything more is redundant, because Aristotle and Lewis Carroll said that what I tell you three times is true. Three times, on a rising scale of effort, commitment, and depth of knowledge of the problem and one’s self, is the correct number. Human beings believe that three times has an effect which two does not. Conversely, four creates overkill. (p. 12)

When the bleakest moment ravages the character (see How to Plan a Great Story), something snaps, and she gets a revelation.

In order to win, the character must turn away from some old traits, no matter how precious, and emphasize new ones, no matter how undesirably they would have seemed in the beginning. Some last straw happens: something breaks, or something precipitates. (p. 63)

Based on this new understanding, she decides to make one last monumental effort. “Simultaneously with the climactic physical action,” Budrys says, “the character displays a new view of the world, grown out of the old one” (p. 63).

After this fourth do-or-die attempt, it’s victory or death—6. A positive character achieves victory. A villain dies or fails in such a way that it means ruin (pp. 12, 62). Here, Budrys insists, “You must make sure that the reader understands it is victory or death” (p. 12). Here’s why.

Over the course of your story, solving the problem and winning the goal must become for your protagonist the most important achievement at this point in her life. So that she doesn’t simply walk away at any time, the stakes must intensify through the middle: “the character cannot help but stake everything on the solution, for to fail is to be obliterated, either literally or spiritually” (p. 63).

Budrys recaps: The middle “consists of (4) effort to solve, (5) repeated failure or increasingly near-attainment of the goal, and (6) victory or death” (p. 12).

What’s left to complete your selling story?

The Ending

7 is validation. Some independent authority, a “trustworthy figure,” must, Budrys recommends, “step forward and say, ‘He’s dead, Jim’” (p. 12) to confirm for readers that the story is truly over. This also could be a brief statement by the narrator.

The character’s revelation, adjusted worldview, and the result of her decisive final action must be validated. Budrys likens this to “pinning a hero’s medal on the character” (p. 63). (Remember the final awards ceremony in Star Wars? That’s validation.)

Budrys’ plotting method will help you write a great story. One that hopefully sells. To help you implement the process in your writing, use this PDF worksheet to plan your next story. Here’s to your success!

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