I bought some software last night to help us constructing stories.
In the help file I found a useful note on the four questions we need to ask ourselves about a story before we start writing. These questions help clarify our idea and also let us know whether we have a story that is compelling enough to start work on.
Many ideas falter at this stage - which can useful because doubt can alert you to the weaknesses in an idea and to stop you from pursuing a story that may lose impetus half way through.
We all know there's nothing worse than starting a story, then running out of steam when it seems to go nowhere or end up in a hole. Getting stuck during the writing of a story is no fun at all.
However, answering the following questions can also help you solidify an idea into a story worth telling.
Question One: Who is your main character?
Often we may be tempted to think that it's a combination of characters that make a story interesting. True - but usually not from the reader's point of view.
Readers like to identify with just one person - usually the one with the most to lose in the story.
You need to be able to personalize your story and show it from a protagonist's perspective.
And don't think you can have a story to which you can bolt on any old characters. It doesn't work that way.
Effective fiction is character driven. You need to have a person in mind - a fictional type at least - and get to know them well. See this as your first task in any story writing pursuit.
Character first. Who are they? What do they want? What do they look like? Where do they live? What do they do? What is important to them?
Think through all of these aspects before you ponder anything else.
Question Two: What is he/she trying to accomplish?
For years now I've been saying that it is 'agenda' that defines a character's purpose and effectiveness in a story.
A fictional personality in a story must want something - whether that be a new car, a girl, to save his family, to cure cancer, anything, as long as it is an easily identifiable goal, and something a reader can identify with.
Characters who do not have goals - even nebulous and seemingly inconsequential aspirations - are not interesting to read about.
If you've ever started reading a story and lost interest it's usually because either you don't care about the main character's agenda - or you haven't been able to identify it.
Hence, when answering this question, make sure you come up with something compelling to the character, and make a decision to weave the opening of your story in such a way that the reader will be aware of the primary motivation of the protagonist within the first page - at least.
And, when editing, try to place your hero in the act of being in their world AND demonstrating their agenda in the very first paragraph.
Question Three: Who is trying to stop him/her?
As you will know - at least from having it repeated to you often - there is no drama (that is, no compelling reason to be captivated by a story) if there is no conflict. And in order to have conflict you need characters' agendas to be at odds with each other.
There may be a hundred and one obstacles to a hero's journey throughout a story but the easiest and best way to consolidate those obstacles is to personify them into an antagonist.
Yep, the bad guy. Now, this character doesn't have to a serial killer or an evil scientist - but he/she does need to be a serious threat to the main character's agenda.
There's little point to a story where the protagonist gets what they want easily and with no significant hurdles to jump.
We all know this instinctively - though it may seem formulaic to you to simply insert a bad guy because Rob says it's a good idea...
However, research has shown that stories are way more effective, entertaining and ultimately satisfying to readers if there is someone the protagonist must defeat in order to win his/her prize.
This is true in any genre, whether the antagonist is a natural disaster, a rival lover, or even a set of unhelpful circumstances.
Think hard about this question because the more compelling the antagonist's agenda, the harder the hero will need to work, grow or change to achieve his/her goals.
Question Four: What happens when he/she fails?
This question is crucial because it defines your story idea. If there are no consequences to a character's actions and reactions, then there is no 'point' to a story. Again, we know this instinctively, yet often we may fail to grasp its fundamental importance.
In the most blatant scenarios, the death of characters close to the protagonist are the most dreaded consequence. The death of the hero too, is an obvious bad thing!
It could be that smaller, less catastrophic events may be significant to your story. The loss of a lover, failing an exam, or losing a treasured possession. Whatever your frame of reference is not the issue.
The real issue is that within the context of your story, the consequences of your hero's failure should be monumental to your main character.
And that the attainment of your hero's goals in the face of adversity - the more difficult the better - is at the heart of good storytelling.
I hope this article helps you when thinking through your next story idea.
It's certainly helped us already!
(c) Rob Parnell
I can't remember who said it but a writer once pointed out that nobody will ever miss something you didn't write.
People don't walk around wishing they can find the genius they are unaware of, or the book that hasn't been written yet.
It's the harshest reality a writer must face. That nobody really cares whether you finish your novel or magnum opus - or whether you even work on it at all. A book is nothing until it's published - and even then, given current trends, it's unlikely to set the world on fire or sell more than a few copies.
Writers must find their own reasons to write - and be self motivated enough to continue without anything but selfish reasons to finish what they start. As Dorothea Brande said in "Becoming a Writer", writers create their own emergencies. They have to, because nobody else really gives a damn.
It's funny. I was rereading a little of Stephen King's "On Writing" this week and I noticed something I'd missed previously.
He said he used to believe that writing was a craft and that it could be taught, a skill that, with enough training and guidance, anyone could master. Note, he used to think that.
But later in his career, after he'd written around twenty novels, he'd changed his mind. He realized that the urge to write consistently must be something you're born with.
Think about it - writing for no good reason (except personal compulsion) is an urge that is so specific - even a little bizarre - that, without it being somehow hard-wired into a writer's DNA, most people, no matter how keen to learn, simply wouldn't bother.
It's not like it's always easy after all.
It's often said that if you find writing easy, you're probably not doing it right. I know from experience that those writers who tell me they found writing their novel a breeze, usually need some serious editing!
Don't get me wrong. I do think that writing the first draft of a story or a book should be fairly effortless or if not, an exhilarating experience for a writer. That's usually how your best work feels.
When you're 'in the zone' and being productive and inspired, you're a writer, just like any other Dan Brown, Emily Bronte or Tolstoy.
But that's not all there is.
There's editing too. And having something important to say. And having the kind of mind that can hold an entire book in your mind - and to be able to get it all down on paper. And, of course, the toughest call: being able to arrange your life to find the time and inclination to write every day.
Not everyone thinks writing is glamorous. Even many professional writers I know have no great regard for the process, only an overwhelming conviction that, in order to create something of value and importance, you have no choice but to do it.
You and only you.
Of course, 'value' and 'importance' are relative terms. That's the point. Only Tolstoy thought is was important to write War and Peace. It had no value to his wife, most likely, and none of us would have missed it - or him - if he'd become an alcoholic and never got around to writing more than a few hundred words.
So the next time you're tempted to write a book, think it through.
Is it important you get it all down?
And are you willing to spend 80% of the process on making it perfect?
Because, like Mr King, I used to think that to be able to write half a page of scribbled lines gave you the right to call yourself a writer.
But now, after I've written a million or so words, I'm beginning to think that being a writer is more involved than I used to believe.
It's somehow innate in a writer's makeup.
Perhaps practice is all it takes - consistent action and dedication to the art.
But more likely you need to discover the writer within - that guy inside who was never going to be satisfied until you gave him free rein to take over your life.
But if he's not there, except as a vague yearning, maybe the best thing is to quit while you're ahead!
Being a full time writer is still one of the hardest ways to live. Ask any writer. Even when you're successful, the motivation to write, stay focused, inspired and clear for long periods can be tough.
Sure, it's rewarding - and often fun.
You know it's good when you finish something great and you like yourself more for having done it.
But be clear on this: commitment to writing books is not for the faint hearted.
Take one step at a time - but be sure you have good sturdy shoes before you start.
(c) Rob Parnell