StoryStarter - Tell a story in 7 steps

About StoryStarter

Ready to start your story? Whether you have an idea already, or need some help, the StoryStarter™ workbook is designed to help you get going.

  1. Before you start, print a copy of the Work Sheet found at the end of this workbook so that you can write down your story notes and ideas as you go along.
  2. As you complete each of the 7 steps, you may find that you want to go back and change an idea you had earlier. That's okay - the best writers usually change their ideas over and over again until they have something they really like.
  3. If you get stuck on a step, try thinking about a different one for a while, and then come back later. Sometimes you'll find that filling in other parts of your idea will help you get unstuck.
  4. When you're finished with your worksheet, you're ready for some real fun - creating a book on the website.

For Teachers

The StoryStarter™ workbook is a tool for teaching students the creative writing process. The goal of the workbook is to coach students in building the 7 primary components of a story (Characters, Challenges, Motivation, Setting, Obstacles, Climax, and Closing). Finishing the 7 steps will give students complete story arcs that they can then develop into rich, detailed stories. You can also adjust the material to fit the needs of your class. Here are just a few ideas you can use to mix things up:

  1. Group Story I: Split the class into small groups and have them work on each step in teams and brainstorming ideas together. After each step, have the class share the results and vote on which team's idea to use.
  2. Group Story II: Split the class into two groups. After each step, have the teams trade worksheets, and then have them continue, building on the other team's progress.
  3. Character Building: Have your students create trading cards using their characters. Use the questions in the Character section to develop attributes. Collect all the cards and mix them in a hat/bag. Have students select a card(s) at random from bag. Take it a step further by dividing the cards between Hero/Villain groups.
  4. When the students have completed their worksheets, they are ready to begin building their books on the StoryJumper website. Follow the steps in the Author's Guide for creating a free online version of their story that they can share with friends and family.

Step 1. Characters

Let's get started! First, your story needs a character. Who is this story about? Here are some things to think about when creating your main character:

  • Your character doesn't have to be human. It can be an animal or a fantastic spirit. It could also be a rock, a computer circuit board, or a puff of smoke. Use your imagination - sometimes the simplest objects in our everyday lives have stories to tell. Like that pencil eraser over there... Did you see how it was looking at the sharpener?
  • Once you've created one character, you probably want to create more characters -- friends, enemies, heroes, villains, and so on.
  • Perfect characters are boring. To create tension in the story, give your characters weaknesses and flaws. If you use the character's weaknesses to get the character into even more trouble, the tension will build, and you'll have a better story. We'll cover the importance of story tension more in the next step.
  • Remember, to keep your story believable, your character should react to events in the story according to the personality you've given them. For example, if a tiger is running loose through the neighborhood, we'd expect a curious character to have a very different reaction than a lazy one.
  • Is your character usually happy, or gloomy? Polite or rude? Clever or arrogant? Punctual or late? Careless? Generous? Sleepy? Irritable? Spacey? Try writing down 5 words that describe your character on your worksheet.

    The more you develop your character's biography -- or back story -- the more believable the character will be.

    Imagine if you were to interview your character. What kinds of questions would you ask? What kinds of questions might you not ask? Write down your questions and see how your character begins to develop.

    If you're stuck, look at the next page for some sample questions. You can also try changing these questions slightly and see how your character's reaction might say something different about his or her personality.

    If you were interviewing your character, how would he or she answer the following questions?

    1. What is the scariest thing in the world?
    2. What is a secret you wouldn't want anyone to know?
    3. Why do you believe that broccoli has magical powers?
    4. What are you really good at?
    5. Why do you always sign your mail with the letters "S.U.R."?
    6. What are you really bad at?
    7. What is something you wear that is important? How does it help you?
    8. Who is your best friend? How did you meet?
    9. Who is your arch enemy? How did this come to be?
    10. What is your special power? When were you were afraid to use it?
    11. What is a funny expression you like to say? What does it mean?
    12. What are you most proud of?
    13. Why do dogs run away when they see you?
    14. Have you ever wished you could be someone else? Who?
    15. What is something you always forget?
    16. Why are you unable to spell your own name?
    17. What makes you nervous? How do you react when this happens?
    18. Why are enchiladas your favorite food?
    19. Who would you never want to be stuck in an elevator with?
    20. What is something you think about all the time?
    21. What is the biggest lie you ever told? To whom?
    22. What is the best present you ever received?
    23. If you could go anywhere, where would it be?
    24. What one word would you use to describe yourself?
    25. Why does your front tooth wiggle?

    Step 2. Challenges

    Every great story involves a problem or challenge to be solved by the characters. An interesting challenge is what turns a boring list of everyday events into an interesting and exciting story for your readers. The challenge creates tension.

    No matter how interesting your character and settings are -- you need an interesting problem to solve or your story will be B-O-R-I-N-G. For example:

    • Boring: "Captain Fantastico woke up one morning, got dressed, brushed his teeth and went to school."
    • Better: "Captain Fantastico woke up one morning, got dressed, and brushed his teeth. On his way to school, he realized he'd left his lunch money on the kitchen table. His stomach was already grumbling. How was he going to eat lunch?"
    • Awesome: "Captain Fantastico woke up one morning with a terrible headache and found that his arms had been tied into knots. No doubt this was the work of his arch enemy Dr. Futzengrapz. To make things worse, his lunch money had disappeared from kitchen table... again."

    Challenges can be general or specific.

    • In Cinderella, the heroine has the general challenge of survival with her evil stepsisters, and then a very specific challenge of figuring out how she'll get to the Prince's dance.
    • In Star Wars, Luke Skywalker has a general challenge of escaping his boring life and then a specific challenge of finding Princes Leia. Then as soon as he's escaped with the Princess, he learns he has another specific challenge: Blow up the Death Star to save the rebel alliance.

    Try coming up with a few challenges that your characters might struggle with, and write these down on your worksheet. If you need some ideas to get started, try asking some "What if...?" questions.

    For example, what if your character...

    • discovers suddenly that vegetables can talk.
    • all the water in the ocean has disappeared.
    • finds that all clocks have stopped.
    • discovers a tree that grows money.
    • has something stuck up their nose and can't get it out
    • best friend is wearing a really embarrassing hat, but nobody will say anything
    • ate way too much for lunch and now cannot get off the couch.
    • has to fly to Paris, but is freaked out about getting on a plane.
    • is convinced that the manhole cover in front of the supermarket is a teleporter.
    • discovers a phone that can call every person in the world at the same time.
    • is given the power to become an animal for one day.
    • wakes up and can magically speak fluent German
    • gets stuck on a deserted island with only a knife, a book and a box of matches.
    • friend gets very sick, and must find the only cure -- the root of a magic jungle plant.
    • finds a time-machine with three 'time-jumps' left in it.
    • must give a speech to the citizens of _____ about the importance of honesty.
    • wakes up to find him/herself floating on a boat in the middle of the ocean
    • finds a cave in the backyard that leads to an ancient Mayan ruin.
    • learns that walking a certain way on the sidewalk can bend time.
    • is invited to tea with the Queen of England but loses the invitation.
    • is walking down a city street and sees a tiger on the loose.
    • is at the mall and sees ______ stealing a pair of sunglasses from a store.
    • opens an old library book to discover a treasure map.
    • receives a mysterious message claiming that stop signs are actually sleeping aliens that will soon wake up to begin an invasion of earth.
    • invents a machine that turns clouds into cotton candy
    • meets a gnome in the forest that can talk with trees and rocks.
    • brand new cell phone falls into the toilet.
    • gets in a huge argument with _____ over which pizza toppings they should order.
    • discovers that a great uncle has left $10,000 in his will, on one condition:
    • finds a light switch that turns out all the lights in the world.
    • accidentally receives an ancient coin from a vending machine. Rubbing it sends your character back in time.
    • discovers that certain parts of the Yellow Pages contain magic spells.
    • comes home and realizes that everything in the house has been replaced with an exact copy of the original.
    • finds a sinister message scrawled on the border of a $1 bill.
    • discovers that the most valuable _______ from his vast collection is missing
    • believes that his dentist is actually a foreign spy.
    • finds a strange pair of shoes beneath the tree in the field.
    • tries to write a birthday poem for ______ that includes the word 'orange".
    • draws a picture that is mistakenly sold at auction for $1,000,000.
    • discovers that the neighborhood bully is extremely scared of _______
    • wakes up to find s/he can no longer talk normally, but can only sing in a loud voice.
    • accepts a dare to spend a night in a haunted house.
    • goes searching around the world to learn why donuts have holes.
    • finds a dark tunnel under the kitchen sink that leads to a world of white infinity.
    • gets lost in the desert with only a shovel and an ice cream cone.
    • dares someone to eat an entire plate of sushi
    • is asked to rescue the Golden Phoenix statue from a hideous blob monster.
    • gets lost in the jungle trying to find an Aztec ruin.

    Step 3. Motivation

    Your character needs motivation to solve the problem. Why must your character confront this challenge? What is the outcome your character hopes for?

    Sometimes this is obvious, sometimes not. For example, if your main character is a fox, and his challenge is to help some chickens get across the river, the reader needs to understand why the fox wouldn't just eat the chickens instead, since that's how a fox would naturally behave. Perhaps the chickens have promised the fox something in return for helping them? Or maybe the fox is afraid that the farmer will catch him if he eats the chickens.

    Making your characters act against their nature can build great tension, but it has to be believable to your reader. Here are some ideas that might motivate your character:

    Perhaps your character...

    1. is bored with life on the farm.
    2. doesn't want parents to discover _____.
    3. doesn't want to be picked on anymore
    4. needs medicine to cure an illness
    5. wants someone to like him/her
    6. wants to sleep really badly
    7. is stuck living with a dreadful aunt
    8. wants to protect the magic spell book
    9. can't stand injustice
    10. wants to know more about...
    11. doesn't like chicken.
    12. is in love with the monster
    13. wants to eat candy
    14. wants to be famous
    15. likes sapphires
    16. is super hungry
    17. is tired of the rain
    18. wants to destroy the planet
    19. just wants to be happy
    20. feels like something is missing

    Step 4. Setting

    Your story needs a setting. Where and when does this story take place?

    • Is the setting important to the story? If not, don't spend too much time on it. For example, if the story is about two rocks in a shoe box, you probably don't need to spend a great deal of time describing the box, since your reader can easily imagine what that looks like.
    • If the setting is important, you want to show the reader what it would be like. For example, if you're setting your scene in the back alleys of Paris in July of 1777, you should help the reader understand what this would be like (hint: hot, stinky, dangerous).
    • Sometimes the setting is so important that it resembles another character in your story. For example, in a story about a penguin trying to cross Antarctica, the bird might encounter 'angry winds' and 'desperate loneliness' of never-ending nights. In other words, the reader would sense that the setting itself has emotions just like the characters.

    Here are some different ideas for settings:

    1. The palm of your hand
    2. The lake at the city park
    3. An enchanted swamp
    4. The top of the Empire State Building
    5. The crypt of the Pharaoh Scorpiones
    6. Deep space
    7. An underground ant hive
    8. The Sea of Tranquility
    9. The school playground
    10. Ed's Fortress of Doom
    11. Your backyard
    12. The refrigerator
    13. The ice planet Krasternok
    14. A table top
    15. Albatross Island
    16. The secret lair of Dr. Fugenzatz
    17. Inside a rainbow
    18. A haunted house
    19. Pookaberry Junction
    20. Ancient Greece

    Step 5. Obstacles

    So now you have your character, the setting, and the problem, and the motivation to solve that problem. These parts are usually told in the first section of your story, sometimes in just a few pages. Until the climax, the rest of your story is detailing the obstacles - the things that get in your character's way. This will make up most of the pages in your story.

    Imagine the following:

    • Character: Mouse
    • Setting: House
    • Problem: Find Cheese
    • Motivation: Hungry

    It's simple and boring. But what happens when you add obstacles?

    • Obstacles: Giant Mouse Trap, Three-legged Cat, Turbo Vacuum

    Now it's getting interesting! Obstacles create tension and make the story fun for your reader.

    Obstacles often come in sets of three. Try including at least this many in your story to start. For example:

    • Using our Star Wars example again, Luke has three main obstacles:
      • Find Ben Kenobi and figure out what R2D2 is squawking about.
      • Rescue the Princess from the Darth Vader.
      • Blow up the Death Star and save the Rebels.
    • In the final scenes of Indiana Jones & the Last Crusade, to gain access to the cave of the Holy Grail, Indy must:
      • Kneel at the entrance of the cave so he doesn't get sliced in half.
      • Step on the correct letters to spell "the name of God" so that he doesn't fall into a bottomless pit.
      • Take a leap of faith onto the invisible bridge that crosses a chasm to the cave.

    Did you notice that both of these examples use 3 obstacles? This is a nice number that allows your story to develop, but also keeps the reader interested. Try using 3 for your story idea, and then add more if you think you need them.

    Also, remember the character flaws that made the Challenge more interesting? Your character should be transforming as the story progresses, getting a bit stronger, braver, luckier, smarter, etc. By the end of the story, the reader should feel that the character has grown or changed into a better person. Obstacles present your character with a chance to grow.

    Here are just a few different ideas from which you can create obstacles. What happens if your character...?

    1. gets a hand stuck in a jar?
    2. gets amnesia?
    3. gets locked in a closet?
    4. gets stuck in a tree?
    5. loses all the money?
    6. is double-crossed?
    7. falls into a well?
    8. gets chased into a cave?
    9. runs out of time?
    10. can't swim?
    11. runs out of batteries?
    12. gets lost in a maze?
    13. is too cold to move?
    14. steps on a gnome?
    15. sneezes loudly?
    16. must climb Mt. Terror?
    17. is chased by a giant eyeball monster?
    18. encounters a slippery banana peel?
    19. hands are stained blue?
    20. horse runs away?
    21. slips on the ice?
    22. must eat sushi?
    23. there's no electricity?
    24. can't turn off alarm clock?
    25. does not like eggplant lasagna?
    26. drops cell phone in the toilet?
    27. can not find x-ray goggles?
    28. parachute has a hole in it?
    29. falls in a river?
    30. rips a big hole in pants?
    31. crab pinches toe and won't let go?
    32. awakens a giant?
    33. is questioned by the police?
    34. spills hot coffee?
    35. breaks a tooth?
    36. is harassed by birds?
    37. has song stuck in head?
    38. eats the last power biscuit?
    39. can't wake up?
    40. gets a speeding ticket?

    Step 6. Climax

    After getting past the last obstacle, your character finally reaches the climax of the story. The tension you have been building in your story is released.

    The climax is the point at which your characters also confront their own weaknesses. If they are naturally timid, then they may become very courageous at the climax. If they tend to lie, then they will need to tell an important truth. The climax of the story is the proof that your character has really transformed.

    The climax is also a great time to reveal an unexpected twist in your story. Just make sure it's believable. If a giant bird suddenly swoops out of nowhere to carry away your villain, your ending will suffer. The best endings often have predictable results, but are achieved in an unpredictable way.

    For example, you may remember that in the climax of The Incredibles, the family battles with the evil character Syndrome. Though the Incredibles all have super powers, it is Syndrome's own cape that does him in. Earlier in the story, we learn that Mr. Incredible's costume designer refuses to use capes because they are too dangerous. So, while the ending is unpredictable, it's satisfying because we were introduced to the idea of capes long before the climax. It also reinforces the dangers of vanity - a theme that is repeated throughout the story, and a weakness that gets Mr. Incredible into trouble in the first place.

    The climax generally follows one of these patterns:

    • Realization: Your character has put together the clues in the story and has figured out what happened. This type of climax works well for mysteries.
    • Resolution: Your character is up against the very last obstacle and -- through the confrontation -- a transformation takes place. (The Incredibles example above fits this pattern.)
    • Choice: The character is faced with making a difficult decision. Should he capture the villain or escape with the gold? Should he tell the truth and face the consequences or lie and escape unharmed?

    If you want to test whether your climax is successful, read your story aloud to a friend, and then stop just before the resolution and put the story down. If they demand to hear the ending, you have a good story!

    Step 7. Closing

    You're almost there! Finally, your story needs an ending. After the climax, there are usually some loose ends to tie up. Here are some questions you might try to answer:

    1. Has everything been resolved? Is it clear what will happen to your important characters after the story ends? For example, do they live happily ever after?
    2. How does your main character feel about the result?
    3. How have your characters transformed? Here are some examples:
      1. The Dr. Seuss's greedy Grinch becomes generous and loving when he realizes there's more to Christmas than just presents.
      2. In the final scenes of Pinocchio, the puppet transforms physically into a boy, while his character also makes the final transformation from being a liar, and into someone that is trustworthy and brave.
      3. Across all seven of the Harry Potter books, we see Harry, Hermione and Ron grow-up -- from small children into young adults. In each book, they learn life lessons about trust, honesty and friendship.

    You should also think about a theme for your story. Is there a message or special point? Stories are often more interesting and memorable if we learn something from them. Because the theme depends heavily on the outcome of the story, it's usually much easier to decide on a theme after you've completed the 7 steps, and then go back and work the theme into the other parts of your story.

    Here is a list of themes you might try to include in your story:

    1. good vs. evil
    2. the importance of friendship
    3. the problems with selfishness
    4. the rewards of sharing
    5. the danger of revenge
    6. the consequences of bullying
    7. the importance of honesty
    8. achieving one's goals
    9. respecting authority
    10. travelling and journeys
    11. following the rules
    12. peer pressure
    13. the value of taking risks
    14. man vs. nature
    15. man vs. machine

    Another way to work on including a theme is to consider proverbs and their meanings. Proverbs can be helpful because they communicate important life lessons and themes very concisely. Here's a short list:

    1. The grass is always greener.
    2. Look before you leap.
    3. A stitch in time saves nine.
    4. If it's not broken, don't fix it.
    5. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.
    6. Don't make a mountain out of a molehill.
    7. Don't put all your eggs in one basket.
    8. The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.
    9. Many hands make light work.
    10. Barking dogs seldom bite.
    11. It's darkest just before the dawn.
    12. Don't cross a bridge until you come to it.
    13. Don't burn your bridges.
    14. The early bird gets the worm.
    15. Don't change horses mid-stream.
    16. All good things must come to an end.
    17. Don't judge a book by its cover.
    18. Don't cut of your nose to spite your face.
    19. Rome was not built in a day.
    20. Birds of a feather flock together.

    Do any of these sound like a theme in your story?


    Now it's time to start writing. If you've filled out the worksheet (download here), congratulations! You already have your entire story line (or story arc) ready to go!


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