Over the past few years, I’ve discovered some excellent writers whose novels, from my perspective, would be stronger if the story structure were stronger.
Many writers may believe that their story hangs on the plot sequence. Hence they work hard to develop an opening scene of intrigue or danger that will draw readers in. Certainly the opening to a novel is important, but for readers to care about the intrigue or danger, they must care about the characters involved.
For example, I watched part of a TV show the other night that opened with an off-duty policeman chasing a man who apparently had been in the midst of committing a crime. During the chase, the perpetrator was hit by a car and died.
Did this scene increase my interest? Draw me into the story? Somewhat. Not because of the virtually unknown man who died but because of the ramifications it held for the police officer, one of the show’s stars.
So how should a novelist begin a story? Above all else, he should conceive of a character that has something she wants or needs. This character’s longing must become striving.
A good story does not happen to a character. The character initiates events in an attempt to satisfy the want or need that drives him.
Often this driving desire does not surface immediately, but the writer must know what this character desire is. The opening scene may present a more transient, less significant want or need, then as the story unfolds the character’s outer and inner struggles will crystallize the deeper desire.
Not only must the writer begin with a character in want, he must also conceive of an antagonist who will serve as a foil. This character is not necessarily an opponent. He might be a business partner who holds a different vision from the protagonist or a homeless man who initiates guilty feelings every time he pushes his cart down the street.
The point is, when beginning a story, knowing who will be the chief character to throw up roadblocks, difficulties, questions, doubts, is just as important as knowing what the main character wants. These two are the twin cornerstones of story structure.