Tag Archives: Plot

A Story’s Bare Bones

1187803_skeleton_1What IS a story? The dictionary isn’t particularly helpful. The Oxford English Dictionary says a story is “an account of imaginary or real people and events told for entertainment.”

Perhaps the key lies in the “for entertainment” part of the definition. Clearly anyone can give an account of a group of characters and what they do without actually telling a story.

For example, my neighbors across the street held a yard sale today, and the man down the block is mowing his lawn. Another set of neighbors is holding a party and playing loud music. Earlier today, my downstairs neighbor did her laundry in our new washer and drier.

Entertained yet?

I fulfilled the first two requirements–gave you characters and events. But entertain? Not unless you have some strange fascination with what happens in my neighborhood. 😉

The “for entertainment” part of the definition, then, is actually the place where story lives.

Perhaps the easiest way to examine a story is to take one apart. Here’s the shortest one I know:

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall;
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty together again. (by Mother Goose)

Humpty_Dumpty_In the first line we are introduced to the main character and we’re given an opening that shows us what “regular” life was like. This is critical to the success of any story.

Too many writers are in a hurry to write something blood-pumping, that will move readers to the edge of their chairs. But those scenes don’t happen unless the reader cares.

If I tell you Jeff drowned in the ocean, I doubt if anyone would think twice about the statement. We don’t know who Jeff is or why he was in the ocean. If, however, I say, A lifeguard named Jeff drowned in the ocean, now we might be a little intrigued. What if I changed it to say, A lifeguard named Jeff drowned in the ocean while trying to rescue a ten-year-old boy. Now there’s another level of intrigue, but not enough. We could think Jeff did something foolish or wasn’t skilled enough for the job. If we learned that a warning just went out about a riptide, that Jeff was putting up the red flag when the boy went into the water, the story begins to take shape.

The point is, first readers need to know who this person is so that they can care about him, all without boring them to death with a lot of backstory.

Line two of our example gives us the inciting incident–Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. Something happened that interrupted his regular routine, that set in motion a sequence of events.

In most stories, those events are put in motion by the protagonist as a way to solve the problem which the inciting incident created. In our example, however, Humpty Dumpty is in no shape to do anything about his predicament. Instead, enter the minor characters who work on his behalf. All the kings’ horses–not one or two, but all of them–and all the kings’ men worked to rescue Humpty Dumpty. Each action increases the tension, ups the conflict. At last there is only one more horse, one more man, and they fail.

This story resolves in a sad way. Nothing they did solved Humpty Dumpty’s problem. Most stories resolve in a more hopeful or positive way, but certainly not all. But “resolve” they must. At the end of the story, readers want to know “what happened.”

How detailed the resolution, of course, is up to the author. What did the kings’ men do with what was left of Humpty Dumpty? Some authors might write that as part of their resolution.

These then are the bare bones of a story. Yes, there are muscle and flesh and skin that need to be added, but without the bones, the story won’t hang together, so it’s a good place to start.

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The Engine That Drives Your Plot

engine and trainCharacters drive the plot of a novel, don’t they? Certainly it’s not the theme, unless you’re writing didactic fiction. Nor does the setting drive the plot, though we might say it serves the plot. So characters it is. But what drives characters?

From a Writer’s Digest article written by Steve Almond several years ago:

Once you’ve found a strong central desire within your hero, your plot decisions boil down to forcing him into the danger of his own feelings. All else becomes secondary.

Two key words: desire and feelings.

Characters fuel the plot, but what the character wants–his desire–fuels him.

Too often writers fail to identify a character’s central desire. Rather, he floats passively through a story, letting things happen to him, only reacting when pushed into a corner.

Here’s a sample of what I’m talking about.

At the beginning of the story, our hero goes to work, but because of the bad economy, he gets laid off. He decides to go to the unemployment office. On the way, he gets into a fender bender. The other driver doesn’t have insurance, and his own coverage isn’t sufficient, so his car is totaled.

Now he’s without a job and without a car, so he sits down at a bus stop. Across the street in the window of a cafe is a “Help Wanted” sign. He decides to check it out. The owner is desperate for help and hires him on the spot, but at the end of the month, doesn’t have the money to pay him.

He tells his landlady that he can’t make the rent, so she starts eviction proceedings. Now he’s without a job, without a car, and without a place to live.

This “story”–which is actually a collection of episodic events happening one after the other to the same character–could go on indefinitely. There is no overarching goal the character is trying to reach. If there were, the reader would follow him through until he either successfully achieves what he set out to accomplish, or utterly fails. As it is, the story can stop at any point, with a further deterioration of events or a reversal. But the character isn’t driving this plot. The author is manipulating events to create the effect he wishes.

Equally problematic is a character who has a central desire and then faces one external problem after another while never once dealing with internal issues.

Plots, in reality, are nothing more than events that take a character from point A in his life to point B–not physically, but emotionally or psychologically or spiritually. In other words, the character experiences some sort of internal change which we term character development.

However, only so much character development can occur by his overcoming one physical obstacle after another. At some point, he must face and deal with his fears, hopes, disappointments, conflicting beliefs, insecurities, guilt, dread, conflicting loves, and so on.

These internal matters are, in fact, the engine that drives a character that drives the plot.

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Sweating The Small Stuff – It’s All In The Details

Recently an author friend of mine passed along some of the editorial feedback about a manuscript which required rewrites. In a number of instances, the changes weren’t what a writer new to the publishing world would expect.

Yes, there were a few of the big issues — character motivation, for example — but a good number of the suggestions had to do with the small stuff, things like consistency in a character’s voice, additional details in describing the setting, and minor characters that needed to come alive.

Initially I thought it might be a helpful tip here to give a list of the details this one writing professional told this one writer to improve this one manuscript. But I think you can see the problem with that — what is true for one story and writer isn’t going to be true for all.

I might have great depth in my minor characters, for example, but overlook the missing details that create plot inconsistencies.

The key, then, isn’t to look at a list that some other author has received, but to create a list for ourselves. We need to pay attention to the small stuff in our own work in progress.

Thinking in details may be hard initially. For example, I as the author may know that a minor character will appear in the book this one time but not again, therefore I’m not particularly invested in fleshing him out. What that does, however, is make the character nothing but a prop, a two-dimensional piece of furniture that the author drops in at that one spot for convenience.

One of the most egregious examples of this “character as prop” effect was in a novel I read some time ago. The book was part historical love story and part mystery/adventure. At one point an older woman who was acting as chaperon was on board a small boat with the two main characters. But apparently after the chaperon said her lines, the author forgot about her because the two main characters went on to share a dark secret that no one else was to know. And no, they weren’t whispering, the minor character hadn’t fallen asleep or overboard and she wasn’t hard of hearing. The author simply did not account for her presence.

A small oversight like that can ruin the “fictive dream” for the reader. Instead of being lost in the tension and the surprise, the reader is thinking, Wait a minute, if this is such a great secret, why are they telling it in front of this minor character?

Details of a story setting are no less important. Readers need to be anchored in place and need to be able to picture where everyone is so the action they are reading makes sense. One story I read some time ago had the character under attack and running for his life. Imagine my surprise when he decided to hide in a barn I didn’t know existed until that moment.

Along with specifics in character and setting, an author needs to pay attention to the specifics of his prose. Word choice can alter mood, a more formal phrase can create inconsistency in tone, repetition and redundancy can slow the pace, too many fragments can make the prose stilted. A writer needs to look at such details.

By taking the time to look at the particulars on every level, a writer will discover two things: making up stories actually is work, and taking time to look at the small stuff pays off. You see, we call stories that keep readers ensnared by a special name: best-sellers. 😉

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Shoring Up Sagging Middles

“Good stories inevitably have good antagonists.” That line concluded the article “Develop Your Antagonist,” posted here back in December.

As I see it, good antagonists are also the key to avoiding sagging middles.

By way of reminder, the antagonist is not necessarily an enemy. Rather he is the character who wants what the protagonist wants. Significantly, both cannot achieve this goal; otherwise there is no real conflict.

Think, for example, about The Fugitive. In that movie, the escaped convict Richard Kimbel wants to be free in order to prove his innocence. Throughout, he is thwarted by the federal officer who wants to capture him. This lieutenant blatantly states he doesn’t care that Richard didn’t kill his wife. For most of the movie, these two are in opposition, and the viewer understands they both can’t achieve their goal.

The plot turns, however, when another antagonist surfaces — the real criminal. At that point, the lieutenant realigns his goal, and this new antagonist becomes Richard’s opponent and the lieutenant’s opponent, trying to thwart them both.

The middle of the story, then, is the point where the conflict between the protagonist and one or more of his opponents is ratcheted higher. John Truby, author of The Anatomy Of Story explains it like this:

Throughout the middle of the story, the hero and opponent engage in a punch-counterpunch confrontation as each tries to win the goal. The conflict heats up.

Again, the fable “The Monkey And The Crocodile” shows this increase in tension as a friend becomes an opponent.

Previously, a hungry crocodile becomes friends with a monkey who shares his bananas day after day. Then this middle section of the story:

One day the crocodile began talking about his wife and family. ‘Why didn’t you tell me earlier that you had a wife?’ asked the monkey. ‘Please take some of the jamuns for her as well when you go back today.’ The crocodile thanked him and took some of the fruit for his wife.

The crocodile’s wife loved the jamuns. She had never eaten anything so sweet before. ‘Imagine’, she said, ‘how sweet would be the creature who eats these jamuns every day. The monkey has eaten these every day of his life – his flesh would be even sweeter than the fruit.’ She asked her husband to invite the monkey for a meal – ‘and then we can eat him up’ she said happily.

The crocodile was appalled – how could he eat his friend? He tried to explain to his wife that he could not possibly eat the monkey. ‘He is my only true friend’, he said. But she would not listen – she must eat the monkey. ‘Since when do crocodiles eat fruit and spare animals?’ she asked. When the crocodile would not agree to eat the monkey, she pretended to fall very sick. ‘Only a monkey’s heart can cure me’, she wailed to her husband. ‘If you love me you will get your friend the monkey and let me eat his heart.’

The poor crocodile did not know what to do – he did not want to eat his friend, but he could not let his wife die. At last he decided to bring the monkey to his wife.

‘O dear friend’, he called as soon as reached the jamun tree. ‘ My wife insists that you come to us for a meal. She is grateful for all the fruit that you have sent her, and asks that I bring you home with me.’ The monkey was flattered, but said he could not possibly go because he did not know how to swim. ‘Don’t worry about that’, said the crocodile. ‘I’ll carry you on my back.’ The monkey agreed and jumped onto the crocodile’s back.

The crocodile swam with him out into the deep wide river. When they were far away from the bank and the jamun tree, he said, ‘My wife is very ill. The only thing that will cure her is a monkey’s heart. So, dear friend, this will be the end of you and of our friendship.’ The monkey was horrified. What could he do to save himself? He thought quickly and said ‘Dear friend, I am very sorry to hear of your wife’s illness and I am glad that I will be able to help her. But … ‘

Notice the punch-counterpunch, first with the crocodile and his wife, then with the crocodile and the monkey.

The initial clash of goals is between the crocodile and his wife. They want the same thing — the monkey, he as a friend, she as dinner — and this makes them opponents for a time. Later the crocodile and the monkey want the same thing — the monkey’s life — and they become opponents.

Interestingly, as the conflict intensifies, the stakes also become higher. Instead of sagging, the middle of the story creates more tension and drives the reader on to the resolution. Part of the tension, of course, is not knowing what will happen in the end. At this point the reader has some ideas, but carefully plotted twists will keep the story from being predictable.

I guess we really do need to discuss that aspect of the story, don’t we. Perhaps next week.

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After The Inciting Incident

In last week’s post “Plot Weaving – Where To Start” we looked at where to begin the plot of a novel, often called the inciting incident — an event the protagonist responds to by forming a plan and taking action.

What comes next?

In the process of putting a plot together (either in outline form before writing or by piecing together scenes after writing, depending on the preferred work style), the novelist should remember three things.

First, every scene needs to move the story forward, that is toward bringing the protagonist closer to change or toward showing why change is impossible. Scenes that do not contribute to this end slow the pace and may cause the middle of the novel to drag.

Second, every scene — in fact, every page of every scene — needs tension. But where does tension come from? Some professionals have said when the story stalls, pull a gun. But that kind of solution is why novels become episodic rather than organic. Instead, a novelist can create tension by raising the stakes for the protagonist, by adding natural and believable complications, and by creating situations in which the character actually may fail.

Recently, Writer’s Digest offered a free download of Donald Maass exercises from his latest work The Breakout Novelist. A number of these will help a writer create more tension. Take, for example, Exercise 13: Raising Public Stakes or Exercise 14: Making Complications Active. In these assignments, the novelist must consider what will make the story problem worse and what might actually cause the protagonist to fail.

Scenes must move the story forward and there must be tension on every page, but there’s still a third element that helps the writer craft what comes next. Each of the events must be connected causally.

In other words, in a linear telling of the story, the inciting incident takes place, causing the protagonist to react. He must take action, put a plan in motion, establish a goal. His first step then becomes the cause of the next event which in turn causes him to react. His step then causes the next event which in turn causes him to react, and so on.

See how this cause-effect cycle works out at the beginning of the plot of the fable “The Monkey And The Crocodile”:

One day a crocodile came swimming up the river and climbed on to the bank to rest under the monkey’s tree. [Inciting incident] ‘Hello’, called the monkey, who was a friendly animal. [Protagonist Reaction] ‘Hello’, replied the crocodile, surprised. ‘Do you know where I can get some food?’ he asked. ‘I haven’t had anything to eat all day – there just don’t seem to be any fish left in the river.’ [Next event]

‘Well,’ said the monkey, ‘I don’t eat fish so I wouldn’t know – but I do have plenty of ripe purple jamuns in my tree. Would you like to try some?’ He threw some down to the crocodile. [Protagonist Reaction] The crocodile was so hungry that he ate up all the jamuns even though crocodiles don’t eat fruit. He loved the sweet tangy fruit and shyly asked whether he could have some more. [Next Event] ‘Of course’, replied the monkey generously, throwing down more fruit. ‘Come back whenever you feel like more fruit’, he added when the crocodile had eaten his fill. [Protagonist Reaction]

After that the crocodile would visit the monkey every day. [Next Event]

By utilizing this cause-effect means of determining what happens next in the story, the plot arises naturally out of the personality, wants, and needs of the characters. The writer does not appear to be imposing his will from the outside, though of course he is. After all, he has given the character her strengths and weaknesses, her goals and plans, and the inciting incident that starts all the dominos falling.

In addition, the writer keeps back a few twists that will still arise organically but will nevertheless surprise even the most astute reader. We’ll look at plot twists another time.

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Plot Weaving – Where To Start


Novelists report common problems. One has to do with “sagging middles” — stories that dead end or lose steam somewhere in the middle. A second is not knowing where to start.

In actuality, the two issues might be related. Story consultant and critic of the popular three-act story structure, John Truby, in his book The Anatomy of Story says this about crafting a plot:

Because plot involves the intricate weaving of characters and actions over the course of the entire, story, it is inherently complex. It must be extremely detailed yet also hang together as a whole. Often the failure of a single plot event can bring the entire story down (p. 258).

It’s fair to say, then, that a bad beginning can affect a story’s middle. That’s not to conclude that a good beginning will automatically eliminate the possibility of a slow or stalled middle, but I’ll explore causes apart from the beginning another day.

I’ve suggested in earlier articles — “How to Start A Novel”, “The First Five Pages”, and “What Goes Into A Plot” that the writer should know his protagonist and his main opponent. He should know his theme and have the setting firmly in mind. But that still begs the question — where to begin the plot?

To figure out the answer to that question, it’s important to know where the story will end up. Mr. Truby says it like this: “An organic plot shows the actions that lead to the hero’s character change or [that] explain why the change is impossible” (p.259).

He then makes, what I think to be a central observation about good plotting: the events of the plot need to be “causally connected.” In other words, one event needs to cause the next event, and in the end the character needs to be changed (or the reason he isn’t clarified). To accomplish both of these goals simultaneously, the writer must weave the story events together in such a way that they appear to grow naturally, one from the other.

It’s possible to do this as an outliner who thinks through the events ahead of time, or as a seat-of-the-pants writer who creates scenes, then pieces them together and fills in gaps later on.

But that still doesn’t answer the “where to start” question. Think of a story as the reason why — the reason why Gillian is blind, the reason why Tad loves soccer, the reason why the sky is blue, or any of a countess number of scenarios. Each of these names the outcome. The story will detail the events that brought about the outcome. The start, then, is the first of those events — the trigger, if you will, or what most writing instructors refer to as the inciting incident.

As a reminder, I suggested in “The First Five Pages” that the opening scene should be a bridge between the story and the back story, so a novel generally doesn’t start with the inciting incident. In reality, however, the inciting incident is the beginning of the plot.

Here’s what Mr. Truby says about the inciting incident: “This is an event from the outside that causes the hero to come up with a goal and take action” (p. 278).

From that point on, the events will have a cause-effect connection.

Fairy tales often used a nice prompt to alert the reader to the inciting incident. After setting the stage, a paragraph would inevitable begin, One day … The implication is that on that day something new and different will happen — the inciting incident, the first step in a series of steps leading to ultimate change.

And that, my friends, is where a plot should start.

Examples
From “The Monkey and the Crocodile”

Once there lived a monkey in a jamun tree by a river. The monkey was alone – he had no friends, no family, but he was happy and content. The jamun tree gave him plenty of sweet fruit to eat, and shade from the sun and shelter from the rain.

One day a crocodile came swimming up the river and climbed on to the bank to rest under the monkey’s tree …

From “Little Red Riding Hood”

Long, long time ago, in a little village at the edge of a forest, there lived a little girl with her mother and her father. This little girl was the sweetest, kindest child there ever was. She was always dressed in a pretty red cloak and hood that her mother had made for her, so that everyone began calling her Little Red Riding Hood.

One day Little Red Riding Hood’s mother called her and said, ‘Daughter, your grandmother is very ill. Please take her this pot of butter and some custard that I have made.’

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What Goes Into A Plot

A recent article in Writer’s Digest on writing short stories included a succinct explanation about story plots:

    Plots, Aristotle told us, have beginnings, middles and ends, and they proceed through a series of reversals and recognitions, a reversal being a shift in a situation to its opposite, and a recognition being a change from ignorance to awareness. The basic plot of every story — regardless of length or complexity — is: A central character wants something intensely, goes after it despite opposition and, as a result of a struggle, comes to either win or lose.

    – “Letting Plot Guide Your Narrative” by John Dufresne

In a pea pod, there are the basics of a plot and the basis of an outline.

Because I believe it is important to craft our theme with the same skill and attention I give to the other fiction elements, I’ll add that I think it’s necessary to know what it is I want to say before I begin work on my plot.

Let’s say I want to write a book that speaks to God’s faithfulness and Man’s need to trust Him. With that direction in mind, I can craft a character who has an intense want in line with this direction.

Because I have a direction, however, I am not cornered into creating a stock character. I have choices. Do I want my character to be a person who has it all, only to lose it, a la Job? Or perhaps I should fashion a character who has it all except for the one thing he thinks will make his life work. Another approach might be to start with a character at rock bottom who is in survival mode.

There are any number of characters with differing situations who can intensely want something only to discover that their real need is to trust God.

My first major plotting decision, then, is to determine my theme, and my second is to create a character.

I can’t emphasis enough how important it is to create a rounded, believable character, not simply affix a name to a particular gendered individual of a certain age with specified hair and eye color. The more a writer can know about his character, the easier plotting is.

For example, suppose your character happens upon a person in the park lying next to the bicycle path, bleeding, not moving. What does your character do?

Your answer as the writer should depend on what kind of a person you are creating. If your character is a take-charge individual, her first actions will be very different than if she is timid and quiet. Does your character have a medical background or does the sight of blood make her squeamish? Was your character helped by a stranger at some point in her life or was she a rape victim? These and a dozen different personality issues, background experiences, and relational influences will affect what your character will choose to do first.

Once you know your character as well as you can, it’s time to put him into a setting. Yes, before your plotting can get started, you need to know where your character is. Of course, setting also must serve your theme and the character you have created.

If he is poor and desperate, don’t assume that he needs to be on skid row. What if he’s poor, desperate, and living in Beverly Hills? How did he get there and why does he want to stay? What will it take? What does it cost him if he fails and has to leave? Where will he go?

Questions, questions, questions. Ask yourself as many questions as you can imagine. When some answer intrigues you, follow that line of thought and ask another series of questions, especially if it’s concerned with why.

Within those questions you just may have found your beginning.

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The First Five Pages

Some time ago, I addressed the subject of starting a novel in a post by the extraordinarily original title “How To Start A Novel.” 😉 In that piece, I made the case for beginning a story with an engaging character who wants something and with a clearly defined antagonist who will be the chief cause of things that thwart the character from reaching his desired end.

Scarlet wants Ashley, who becomes engaged to Melanie (Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell). Captain Ahab wants revenge on the whale that took his leg, but Moby Dick continues to elude him (Moby Dick by Herman Melville). Grady wants to be loved, but Floyd, his father figure, ignores him, uses him, and betrays him (The Charlatan’s Boy by Jonathan Rogers).

With those key components, a story is about to happen. But how to start?

I’ve wrestled with this topic in my own writing. One piece of advice I embraced is that the opening of a novel should be the bridge between the story and the backstory.

To clarify: backstory is what happened before the point in time when this story starts — often called the inciting incident. But before the story can actually start, readers need some sort of introduction to the main character. Otherwise, whatever starts the story will lose importance because readers don’t care about the character.

The first five pages (or so) give the reader a look at what life was like before the inciting incident disrupts the story world. At the same time, the opening should give some picture of what the character wants.

Of course, the character should have both internal and external desires that are story-long. However, the author doesn’t have to rush those forward. Rather, the character’s opening-scene want may be a faint echo of what will become the deeper need.

The first five pages should also anchor the reader in the story in several ways. One is by creating a mood — humorous, stoic, lighthearted, dramatic, ironic, angst-filled, and so on.

Setting may contribute to mood and is another element that anchors the story. Even though settings change as characters move about, readers need to “see” where they are. Especially at the beginning of a novel, it is critical that readers are not confused.

In contrast, an author wants readers to be curious which gives them ample reason to continue reading beyond the first five pages. Curiosity and confusion have nothing to do with each other except that some writers mix up the two.

To create curiosity, a writer poses a question, inviting the reader to turn the page and find the answer. In the process of discovery, however, a new question will present itself, one with added weight, and the process continues.

On the other hand, if readers don’t understand who the players are or what is happening, they most likely won’t care to search for the answers to any questions that might suggest themselves. Their confusion stifles their curiosity.

Besides creating mood, providing setting, and fanning curiosity in the first five pages, the author should establish expectations, accomplished by his choice of point of view (first person, omniscient third person, close third person) and verb tense, by his creation of style (sentence structure, description patterns, the amount of narrative versus scenes, and so forth) and voice (the author and/or character’s personality infused into the story by word choice and “speech” patterns).

If you’re thinking that’s a lot of responsibility for the first few pages of a novel to bear, you’re absolutely right. Readers form opinions from those opening pages. They make decision — do I like this character? do I want to read more? do I care what happens next? should I buy this book?

Experienced writers have learned to put considerable effort into getting opening scene right. Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be right on the first draft, or there might not a novel at all. 😀

For further study, The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman is helpful for beginning writers.

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How To Start A Novel

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.

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The Art of Storytelling, Part 4

Style, as I see it, is an underrated component of artful storytelling, and I hope to learn much, much more about it, but the key element, of course, is the story. Once upon a time, I equated story with plot, but I now understand that character is just as central, though some argue it owns the prominent place.

Some might think there is little left to say about plot and/or characters. I might have thought this myself, except I read another article in Writer’s Digest that opened my eyes to More. I’m referring to “Your Novel Blueprint,” an excerpt of the book From First Draft to Finished Novel by Karen Wiesner.

The thing that grabbed my attention the most was the interplay between plot and characters that Wiesner clarifies. Here’s one example from the section entitled “Evolving Goals and Motivation”:

    Goals are what the character wants, needs or desires above all else. Motivation is what gives him drive and purpose to achieve those goals. Goals must be urgent enough for the character to go through hardship and self-sacrifice.

    Multiple goals collide and impact the characters, forcing tough choices. Focused on the goal, the character is pushed toward it by believable, emotional and compelling motivations that won’t let him quit. Because he cares deeply about the outcome, his anxiety is doubled. The intensity of his anxiety pressures him to make choices and changes, thereby creating worry and awe in the reader.

I love this section, but the next is just as good – “Plot Conflicts (External)”:

    External plot conflict is the tangible central or outer problem standing squarely in the character’s way. It must be faced and solved. The character wants to restore the stability that was taken from him by the external conflict, and this produces his desire to act. However a character’s internal conflicts will create an agonizing tug of war with the plot conflicts. He has to make tough choices that come down to whether or not he should face, act on, and solve the problem.

That’s probably enough to show how Wiesner interweaves plot and character, but it brings up one of the components of story I think is necessary—well, two actually. The first is that the character must have a want, need, or desire. More than one actually, and these can not be secret. The reader must understand from the outset what it is the character is after.

The second is that the story is really all about the character working to achieve the goals, even as the goals change by growing “in depth, intensity, and scope.” Of course, to achieve these goals, the character must overcome the problems standing squarely in the way.

Of late I’ve read a number of novels that don’t demand my attention until a third to a half way through. I’ve come to realize that I don’t have a compelling reason to keep reading because I don’t see the character taking action to achieve some deeply felt goal. I don’t have a rooting interest in continuing to read.

So now I have a new goal for my own writing, a deeply felt one, I might add. 😉

First posted at A Christian Worldview of Fiction, January 2009.

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