We found out this really simple rule… We can take these beats, which are basically the beats of your outline, and if the words ‘and then’ belong between those beats, you’re fucked, basically. You’ve got something pretty boring. What should happen between every beat that you’ve written down is either the word ‘therefore’ or ‘but.’ Right? So what I’m saying is you come up with an idea and it’s like okay ‘this happens, right? … and then, this happens.’ No, no, no! It should be ‘this happens… and therefore, this happens.’ [or] ‘this happens… but this happens.’
—Matt Stone and Trey Parker, creators of South Park.
You don’t have a story without character. This sounds obvious, and you might think that what I mean is that a story doesn’t exist without people for the plot to happen to, but that’s backwards. Plot doesn’t happen to characters. Characters create plot.
Certainly it’s possible to write a story where the plot happens independent of the actions of the characters, but that story is going to have a fatal flaw: the characters won’t develop and grow and achieve their character arc, since nothing they do has any effect on what happens to them. Unless the characters can make choices, suffer the consequences, and learn from their mistakes, they’re never going to change. And that, of course, is the point of the story: your protagonist is a different person at the end of the story than she was when the story began.
In other words, if you presented your protagonist with the same choice at the start and end of your novel, she should make a different choice the second time due to the stuff she’s learned over the course of the novel.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. That’s the character arc, and first you need to come up with your character’s starting position. What does your character want? What is her driving motivation? As the curtain rises, what is your protagonist’s number one desire, and what is she doing to achieve that? Why are we even reading about this character in particular and not about someone else?
And while you’re considering that, what is your antagonist’s desire? The key factor that makes your antagonist an antagonist is that he is going to get in the way of your protagonist achieving her goals.
Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
— Kurt Vonnegut
1. Your protagonist has a desire, and a specific idea of how to achieve that desire (not necessarily what they’re going to do during the story, but what they THINK they’re going to do during the story).
2. Your antagonist has a desire, and a specific idea of how to achieve that desire, and their actions to achieving their desire are going to block your protagonist from their own goals.
It’s this conflict that’s going to kickstart the plot of your novel. Each subsequent scene is going to lead from the choices your characters make. If your plot requires characters to do things they’d never normally do, the story is going to feel forced and artificial for the reader. Everyone’s seen movies or read books where the characters act exceptionally dumb just so the next plot event can happen. It’s frustrating, and kicks the reader out of the story. Don’t do that. Instead, remember these three questions:
What does your character WANT?
What does she DO to meet those goals?
What do her actions ACHIEVE?
Every scene in your novel is going to answer these three questions, though the answers will change from scene to scene. What’s important is that they have answers, so the scene keeps moving forward. If she doesn’t want anything, then she won’t be taking any actions. If she wants something but doesn’t do anything to get it, that scene has no purpose and shouldn’t be in the story. If she wants something and does something to attain it, there will always be some sort of consequence to her actions, positive or negative.
Before this gets too long, here’s a list of questions you should ask for each main character in your story. I’ve cobbled this together from Chuck Wendig’s post on making characters. Forget the questionnaires that ask your character’s favorite color and most hated band. These are the questions you need to answer before you start your story:
What does the character want?
What does she do to get it?
What consequences happen as a result?
What does the character fear most?
What does she think the solution to her problem will be?
What is her greatest character flaw?
What is her personality, in one sentence?
What is her internal conflict?
What is her external conflict?
How is she connected to the other characters?
What is she good at?
What is she bad at?
How does she change over the course of the story?
If you can answer these questions, you’ll start to have an idea of how the characters are going to interact and what conflicts are going to come up between them. Your plot will develop from there.
Next time: setting