Tag Archives: Story

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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Filed under Characters, Inciting Incident, Plot, Story, Structure

Goals And Who Needs Them

illustration by Carl Offterdinger

The more novels I read, the more I realize those that engage me are ones with characters who have goals–both story and scene goals.

In every story, I suspect the author has goals. To entertain, perhaps, or to show a particular truth. On the scenic level, the writer may wish to convey backstory or to introduce a character or to describe the setting.

Those things do mot make for compelling writing. What matters isn’t the author’s goal but the character’s–both for the story and for each scene. If the character is likable or sympathetic or at least one with whom readers can connect, then they will be cheering for him to achieve what he sets out to do. If the character is despicable, a true villain, then readers will be hoping for his failure and an end to his carefully laid plans. Either way, the story will hold the reader’s interest because the goal turns into a question–will he succeed or fail?

The Shark Tank, one of the many “reality” TV game shows, serves to illustrate how compelling this “will he succeed or fail” set up can be. In the TV show, entrepreneurs with something to sell and in need of marketing or distribution stand before a panel of investors who make offers to fund the enterprise in exchange for a portion of the company. Each person has his or her own goal. Will they or won’t they succeed? The entire hour-long show depends on viewers wanting to know who will come away from the conflict with what they want.

A good many fairy tales also illustrate the importance of goals. Look, for example, at “Puss in Boots,” a tale by the French writer. The story begins with a little set up–common in writing up until the late twentieth century. But before long, the story goal surfaces.

Once upon a time there was a poor miller who had three sons. The years went by and the miller died, leaving nothing but his mill, his donkey, and a cat. The eldest son took the mill, the second-born son rode off on the donkey, and the youngest son inherited the cat .

“Oh, well”, said the youngest son, “I’ll eat this cat, and make some mittens out of his fur. Then I will have nothing left in the world and shall die of hunger.”

The Cat was listening to his master complain like this, but he pretended not to have heard anything. Instead, he put on a serious face and said:

“Do not look so sad, master. Just give me a bag and a pair of boots, and I will show you that you did not receive such a poor inheritance in me.” (emphasis mine)

The character in question is the cat, as the title of the story suggests. The overarching goal is for him to prove to his master that he was not a poor inheritance.

In scene after scene throughout the story, Puss formulates a goal, though the reader may not fully understand how his actions will achieve that for which he’s aiming. Take this scene with an ogre, for example.

The cat has convinced the king that his master is not a penniless fellow, but a generous, loyal, landed aristocrat. The king wishes to go to the man’s (non-existent) castle. The cat asks for an hour to make the place ready. Then this scene:

With that he jumped away and went to the castle of a great ogre and asked to see him saying he could not pass so near his home without having the honor of paying his respects to him.

The ogre received him as civilly as an ogre could do, and made him sit down.

“I have been assured,” said the Cat, “that you have the gift of being able to change yourself into all sorts of creatures as you wish; you can, for example, transform yourself into a lion, or elephant, and the like.”

“That is true,” answered the ogre very briskly; “and to convince you, you shall see me now become a lion.”

Puss was so terrified at the sight of a lion so near him that he immediately climbed up the curtains, not without difficulty, because his boots were no use to him for climbing. A little while after, when Puss saw that the ogre had resumed his natural form, he came down, and admitted he had been very much frightened.

“However,” said the cat, “I fear that you will not be able to save yourself even in the form of a lion, for the king is coming with his army and means to destroy you.”

The ogre looked out of the window and saw the king waiting outside with his soldiers, and said,

“What shall I do? How shall I save myself?”

Puss replied: “If you can also change yourself into something very small, then you can hide”.

And in an instant, the ogre himself into a mouse, and began to run about the floor. Puss no sooner saw this but he fell upon him and ate him up.

Puss, who heard the noise of his Majesty’s coach running over the draw-bridge, ran out, and said to the King:

“Your Majesty is welcome to this castle of my Lord Marquis of Carabas.”

In the end, the cat not only secures for his master a title, fine clothes, the esteem of the king, and a castle, but also the hand of the princess in marriage. Clearly, he succeeds in his story goal.

Stories that wander about, with things happening to the main character rather than the main character wanting something and going out to get it, scene after scene after scene, are the kind I can easily put down or which might even put me to sleep.

Stories with characters that want something–now that’s a different situation altogether.

So here’s the question: does your character have a goal in each scene? Does mine? I’m in the process of doing a revision, and one of my steps this time around is to identify my point of view character’s scene goal. If I can’t, then I need to do some serious re-writing.

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Story Structure – Writing In Scenes, Part 1

Recently I started to re-read Scene & Structure by Jack M. Bickham, an old writing instruction book of mine. Mr. Bickham was clearly a believer in the three act structure of a novel–something I’ve become wary of because I tend to think it leads to formulaic stories. However, there’s much to be said about the “scene” part of the book.

What exactly is a scene in a novel? We have a pretty clear idea of what it is in a play. After all, when reading a script, the scenes and acts are marked. When viewing a play the lights on stage go down at the end of a scene, the characters head for the exits, and sometimes the curtain closes while the stage crew effects changes.

In novels, there isn’t any such clear delineation. Mr. Bickham defines a scene as

a segment of story action, written moment-by-moment, without summary, presented onstage in the story “now.” It is not something that goes on inside a character’s head; it is physical. It could be put on the theater stage and acted out.

Mr. Bickham went on to say that “the scene is the larger element of fiction with an internal structure . . . and rules . . .”

Structure? Rules? In art? Well, yes, in art–the same way music and painting and poetry have structure and rules. In other words, there are patterns that have brought favorable results in the past from which an author may depart if he has a good reason. However, the majority of successful stories today adhere to a set of basics.

Mr. Bickham taught that this structure was a mirror image of the larger, overarching story structure. In other words, it has the same components: goal, conflict, and intensified problem (which he termed disaster).

Stories start with a character formulating a goal to deal with a story problem. In the same way, scenes start with a scene goal to deal with a scene problem.

Using the recent events in the 2012 London Olympics as an example, we can see how this works. Michael Phelps entered the games needing a certain number of medals to be the most decorated athlete in Olympic history. The “character’s” problem was that he was in his last Olympics and was not the most decorated athlete. His goal, then, was to break the Olympic record and win at least three medals.

Such a goal suggests a story question to the reader, or in this case, the viewer: will Michale Phelps break the record?

Each race, and profiles of other athletes or interviews with them, became the scenes that made up this story. Michael swam the preliminaries of his first event and barely qualified. In the finals, he had an outside lane and failed to medal. One attempt down.

The scene goal of that first competition was to win the event or at least to receive a medal. This goal created a question for the viewer: will Michael win this race and draw closer to becoming the most decorated Olympic athlete of all time? Notice how the scene goal was tied to the story goal.

The scene conflict was the race against other athletes in the preliminaries which brought about a result–Michael was the last qualifier to make the event finals. This result caused a new conflict–he was in a bad lane where few swimmers win races. That positioning brought about another result–he finished out of the medals. The end of the “scene” was a disaster, a failed attempt to move closer to achieving the story goal.

In fictitious stories, the end of one scene should lead naturally to a new scene with its own scene goal. It’s important to keep the goals realistic and achievable, the conflict formidable but not impossible, and the failure not always crushing. In other words, some success can be mixed in with the failure. Often it is the hopeful results that suggest the next goal, although when an action fails utterly, a character must re-evaluate and make a dramatic change in strategy as well.

Story goals are not always centered on defeating an opponent. Sometimes they are about a character becoming, and the conflict is his own self doubt or character weakness.

The story of Samson, a figure in Biblical history, offers a good example. He was destined from birth to be a judge, or rescuer, of his people Israel who were under the rule of a foreign power. The story question readers ask is, will Samson free Israel from their oppressors?

When he grew up, he had incredible God-given strength connected to his maintaining a special vow to God which involved not cutting his hair. But he also had a weakness for the wrong kind of women.

Throughout his life story, he defeated bands of the foreign rulers time and again until they decided to come after him. In one such incident–a scene, if you will–they convinced his new love interest to betray him.

Samson’s goal in the scene was to maintain the secret of his great strength. The conflict he faced was from within because he had a second goal–to keep his latest love happy. Since her goal, now that she’d sold out to Samson’s enemies, was to make him reveal his secret, he could not achieve both his goals. He faced disaster of one kind or the other at the end of the scene.

Great scenes, like great stories, involve both an external and an internal goal. They also have conflicts that make goal achievement slow or non-existent, and they end in some way that necessitates a new plan or phase or effort because of the previous failure or minimal success. That is, until the final scene in which the story goal is accomplished or lost forever.

More on writing in scenes another day.

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Story Triage

In my experience readers, reviewers, and even critique partners might recognize that something in a story is amiss. It’s another thing to be able to identify accurately what that something is. Too often secondary issues get blamed: sentences need to be tightened, a better story hook inserted, most -ing words and all -ly adverbs need to be cut, passive verbs changed to active, and so on. While these Browne-and-King type writing guidelines (so named for the authors of a good beginning writing resource entitled Self-editing for Fiction Writers) have merit, they most likely are not the real problem. Too many stories are sitting on the best-seller lists with all these taboos glaring back at the unpublished writer who then asks, How can that bad writing get in print, and my perfect prose not find an agent?

The problem might actually be “the perfect prose.” No one is particularly interested in reading a story that sounds more like a text book. Stories need to have character and they need to be about character.

In a recent Writer’s Digest article, writing instructor Donald Maass gave his top two mistakes novelists make, and neither one of them dealt with point of view or passive voice, nor did he mention loose body parts or the presence of the nasty “be” verb forms. Instead he honed in on the things that are critical to the story itself if readers are to keep reading.

When doing story triage, then, it is important to look at the foundation first — what the story is, not how the author has told it. If the story itself is flawed, no amount of prose doctoring will fix the problem.

So what are the critical things Donald Maass pointed to?

1) Failing to create characters for whom we have an immediate reason to care, and 2) Not using enough micro-tension to make it necessary to read everything on every page.

Interestingly, I’ve seen the failing of those two elements just this week. In one book I am reading (it seems I am never reading just one book 😉 ), I noticed the problem of not having an immediate reason to care for the characters. As it turned out, the further into the book I read, the more I cared for the characters. But can we count on readers staying with a story for a hundred pages if they don’t love a character at once (or at least connect with him) or have a reason to cheer him on to victory? I don’t think so.

This means characters must be believably real, but even more importantly, they must have some desire, some goal that drives their actions. They can’t have a desire about which they do nothing and have readers care deeply. The characters can’t even be reactive to the things that happen around and to them, and have readers care deeply. It is in characters taking steps to obtain their significant desires that gives rise to readers joining in their quest emotionally.

Donald Maass’s second point, not using enough micro-tension to make it necessary to read every page, was something I saw in my own writing. As I reworked my opening scene for the umpteenth time, I created what I thought was an intriguing hook. My basketball-player main character, who was used to trash talk on the basketball court, was hearing it in his parents’ condo. I was happy with that first paragraph (still am) because it introduced possible conflict and created an unexpected — and therefore intriguing — encounter.

The problem came in the next line. I downplayed the emotional reaction my character had to this trash talk aimed at him. After all, he’d heard worse from guys more threatening than the man in front of him. With the portrayal of that cool, in control reaction — which was true to my character — away went the tension which the first paragraph had introduced. If the trash talk was no problem for my character, than it was no problem for my readers, so why should they care? I have to give them more tension, not less, if I want them to keep reading.

As I see it, Donald Maass put his finger on the twin beams upon which good stories are built — characters readers care about, acting in ways that generate tension. Writers who want to improve their novels would be wise to look at those two factors first before concerning themselves overly much with secondary elements.

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Beautiful And Bad

We’ve all seen them on TV — gorgeous women who lure the hero by their incomparable good looks, but in the end they are bad, bad, bad. Some stories aren’t so different from those characters.

In a recent contest I entered, the submission guidelines included this line: “Some writers can weave a beautiful thread, but tell a really bad story at the same time.”

That caught my attention. So often a writer believes that spinning beautiful prose is all it takes to write a best-seller. I don’t believe that’s true in fiction or non-fiction.

In the latter, we can replace “story” with “content” and the statement above is just as true — a beautiful thread can be a part of really bad content. I’ve seen it before in blog posts. One beautiful sentence after another, and suddenly my eyes are glazed over because I have no idea where the writer is going and I’ve forgotten where she came from. Either that or she’s made her point over and over using one inspiring metaphor, followed by a clever simile, illustrated by a picturesque analogy, the redundancy leaving at least this one bored reader skimming the rest of the post.

How can a writer avoid wasting beautiful prose on a bad story? To answer this question, I think we must first look at what constitutes a bad story.

A host of story elements gone wrong can result in bad stories, but my Big Three are lack of originality, little or no direction, and an ending that does not deliver what the beginning promised.

Originality. Stories aren’t new, but they can be told from a perspective that hasn’t been done and re-done. For example, the story of King Arthur has been told in story, film, movies, TV programs over and over again, to the point that I tend to recoil when I hear a story uses elements of that myth.

And yet, when the TV program Merlin came on, it quickly became one of my favorites. Why? Because I’d never seen this slice of the Arthur story before — his life as a young prince as told through the eyes of the young wizard who would one day be the key figure in Arthur’s kingdom.

Direction. In fiction the main character sets the direction of the story. Problems occur when a writer has so many point of view characters that a reader has a hard time identifying the main direction. He doesn’t connect with one particular character and therefore does not follow the story in the hopes that the hero will find success.

“Finding success” also is dependent upon direction. The main character must want something and must take action to accomplish whatever it is he or she wishes to achieve. This achievement, however, may be something subtle, such as character change. Nevertheless, readers should know without question when the character achieves or fails, whether he’s been successful in his quest or not.

Rocky Balboa, for example, lost his first title bout against Apollo Creed, but he forced the fight to go the distance — one of his goals. What’s more, through the events leading up to the fight, Rocky changed. Even though the boxing judges’ decision went against him, we all knew Rocky was a winner.

The Ending. Recently I read a story that promised much. The character was interesting and the premise original. Tension mounted. Suspense showed up. But in the end, what we thought was true turned out not to be so, and the story ended like a balloon with a slow leak.

Endings need to be strong and satisfying. They need to cap off a steady build up. In fact, all that has come before should be leading to the climactic ending.

With that kind of appropriate build-up, an ending will be satisfying if it answers the story question — can the character overcome? However, that “overcome” issue isn’t so much about overcoming an adversary as it is overcoming his own weakness.

Endings need to be strong for their own sake but also for the sake of the next book. Unless a reader finishes with a sense of satisfaction, it’s unlikely she will care to read the next novel the author puts out.

In summary, authors certainly should write beautiful prose. However, all that beauty should be poured into making the story great. Attention to style without attention to substance may earn praise from those looking for art in story. But the truth is, most readers are looking for story in story. Authors would be wise to give the best story they can — without neglecting beautiful prose that can serve as the wrapping.

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Plotting A Novel

Seat-of-the-pants writing is only one method

Writing instructors often divide novelists into two camps — those who plot and those who write “by the seat of their pants.” The latter have an organic method of writing, they say. The characters “tell them” who they are and what they must do.

I’ve long brushed such phrasing aside because it’s apparent that the characters aren’t alive and the thoughts “coming from them” are actually the author’s own thoughts. Why, then, this pretend that the story is coming from outside the author?

Well, maybe pretend is the point. After all, we are talking about fiction.

Certainly pretend is necessary in conceiving a novel, no matter what method the author uses to find his way. The seat-of-the-pants writers apparently write in a meandering way, often completing scenes they may discard later or will piece together with other scenes to make the whole.

I have to admit, I’ve never quite understood this manner of writing.

Author and writing instructor (Writing Fiction For Dummies, Writer’s Digest) Randy Ingermanson created a way of plotting he calls the Snowflake Method which gives more structure. The writer starts small, then expands from a sentence to a paragraph to a page to several character sketches to a four-page synopsis, and so on.

Call me lazy, but all that writing seems like a waste of time to me. 😉 I can accomplish the same thing by a simple outline.

Being an outliner from my non-fiction days, I carefully structured my entire first novel before I wrote a word. The problem was, in the writing, I often added new scenes and unplanned characters. I kept changing my outline to fit the new direction my story was taking.

Some writers claim they would be a slave to an outline. I can’t answer for them, certainly, but don’t think the outline is any different than the meandering scene-by-scene writing or the Snowflake Method — just shorter.

In all these ways of envisioning a story, the author is imagining. He’s creating characters and a story problem, friends and obstacles, places and inner struggles, a background and a resolution. In most instances, I dare say, the first conception of these elements is not the last.

After I wrote the first draft of my first book, I realized I didn’t know my character very well. He was an arrogant sinner that needed to change. But how did he get to be who he was? What were his strengths that would win people over despite his weaknesses?

As I understood my character better, my writing became less generic and more specific. But all that work! If only I’d conceived of a well-rounded character before I wrote that early draft. But of course, as a beginner, not having studied how to write fiction, I didn’t know any better.

All this brings to mind some of the writing advice I heard in school and even taught my own students: writing is 75% pre-writing (the rest is divided up between writing and revising/editing).

Without a doubt, I work better that way. Nothing discourages me more than not knowing what will happen next. So I plot. I sit down and ask myself, what are the logical things that might happen? I make a list. I ask, what are the unusual things that might happen? I make a list. I ask, what are the most likely things to happen? These things I cross off my lists.

Next I decide what else to throw away and what to keep. I can order keepers and then choose one at a time to expand.

I’m shortcutting the procedure, but I think you can see how much quicker it is to make lists than it is to write a scene which may or may not work or to expand a core idea with events that I may or may not want to include.

For me, working with brief phrases that represent the scenes I’ve imagined gives me more time to work on the actual story — the one I’ll know going in, I want.

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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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Good Stories, Day 4

I believe a good story must have three key ingredients.

Characters in motion. Characters who don’t have to say what they believe. Rather they act out their beliefs.

Theme that is significant, if not profound. A memorable story deals with universals, but not in a surface way.

Varied conflict. Sometimes intense, sometimes mild. Focused internally for a time, then externally. But always present.

Perhaps a look at these elements in more depth would be helpful.

Engaging characters—ones that are sympathetic, ones that have character qualities we admire, or ones who want something with which we can identify—are necessary to a novel, but story trumps all.

As a corollary, wonderful characters painted with skill are not enough to make a compelling novel. Characters readers love make the story, but they do not operate in a vacuum. Instead, having wonderful characters in the center of a storm gives readers a reason to worry and cheer and cry. Because of the characters, the conflict and its ramifications matter. The interesting, unique, unexpected, tense circumstances swirling around these characters then form a memorable story.

The symbiotic connection between plot (which is built upon conflict) and characters is essential, but the foundation is built on the theme. That being said, I’d like to start with a look at characters, but not just any characters. A good story must have characters who matter.

How does a writer go about creating a character readers will care about?

Entire writing instruction books have been written on this subject, but here are some things that I’ve come to believe are essential.

  • Strength with vulnerability. A character who is capable, admirable, winsome, but with a touch of weakness that makes him realistic but also endearing. It’s a bit like Clark Kent hiding inside Superman. Note, the reverse—a bit of Superman hiding inside Clark Kent—is not the kind of character readers typically love.
  • Independence. The protagonist isn’t a follower. He is generally the trendsetter, the leader, the catalyst. He sees the solution when no one else can, takes the path least trodden, faces the insurmountable odds when everyone else runs. She is the one who sets herself apart with her choice for a career or her choice to renounce her career. She’s willing to go it alone. Readers admire that courage.
  • Action. The main character must not exist to experience whatever befalls him. He must take the initiative, decide to engage his world, and, for right or wrong, make things happen. Along this line, she is self-aware. She knows she has weaknesses and wants to overcome them. In fact, much of what moves her to act is her desire to be better than she knows herself to be.

  • Perhaps a more detailed look at characters is warranted in the future. After all, what would a book be without them? 😉

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    Good Stories, Day 3

    In my opinion, good stories put the reader into the made-up world the author has created. Not literally. But as I read a good story, I feel like I am on the spot, observing, feeling what the point of view character feels. Listening to conversations. Hoping, dreaming, cheering the protagonist on.

    All of which brings up other important elements of a good story, in no particular order.

    Good dialogue. This is the kind of conversation that makes me feel as if I am a fly on the wall, hearing it all. Nothing pulls me away, sidetracks my thinking. Not unnecessary speaker attributions, overdone dialects, mundane comments stalling the story, language not fitting to the character who supposedly is speaking. It is crisp, provocative, indirect, necessary.

    Well-defined setting. In a fantasy, this element is critical. And yet, it cannot be created with layer upon layer of information shoveled out at the beginning of every scene. Instead, the story world needs to unfold gradually, much as the characters need to come alive bit by bit. This is accomplished not so much by painting the scene in its entirety but by inserting particular details that evoke the scene in the reader’s mind.

    Establishing an engaging protagonist. Again, I’ll have more to say about this when I take a closer look at characters, but I want to mention it here because I see some Christian authors losing this key element in the process of exploring multiple points of view. In my opinion, only a most extreme circumstance should cause a change of point of view character. The story should be about the main character and more often than not, in contemporary writing, this is the main point of view. This allows readers to be as nearly in the skin of the protagonist as possible. So why change?

    The latest fad that really weakens character identification, in my opinion, is writing sections from the antagonist’s point of view, especially giving the antagonist motives or redeeming qualities that make him sympathetic. Sorry, but this is the guy readers want to root against. Why make him sympathetic?

    Properly motivated, sure. His actions should make sense and should be the logical step he would take, given his worldview. But his worldview should not be painted as one brought on by hard times or his suffering as a child or fate. Such explanations inevitably make his actions less heinous, and consequently reduce the intensity of a reader’s desire to see him fall into the hands of Justice.

    Orignially posted at A Christian Worldview of Fiction October 12, 2006.

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    Filed under Characters, Dialogue, Story