As a novice writer I had many false starts. My stories always seeded as characters. Great characters! Characters with tragic backstories, with interesting tics and colorful personalities.
So a man walks into a bar and…
My mistake was this: I may have had a great character, but I didn’t have a story. (Yet.)
Even for the most ardent pantser, here are 2 plotting questions to fuel story, unstick you when you’re stuck, and turn false starts into finishes.
I love plotting.
I make beatsheets. I lay notecards out on the kitchen table. I jot down outlines for scenes and sequences in the Scrivener scratch pad as I go. I’m a concrete thinker, and structure saved me.
But there are some of you who break out in hives at the mere sight of a bullet point. Writing is supposed to be fun! Freeing! Creative! Writing isn’t supposed to be about making lists or doing homework. After all, where’s the fun in knowing what’s going to happen in advance? While I think everyone should invest time into understanding story structure, I recognize (and respect!) that some people are abstract thinkers and simply don’t enjoy the process of plotting like I do.
So what do you do when you’re stuck? That’s the real pitfall of pantsing, and why I can’t do it. If I hit the murky middle and don’t even know which direction I’m supposed to be headed – well, that’s when I break out in hives.
What if story structure could be boiled down to just two open-ended plotting questions that you could call upon when nothing makes sense anymore?
Here they are:
What is wrong with my protagonist?
In my last two posts (and in a few more posts to come), we’ve been talking theme. Theme and character flaw are inextricably linked because your character’s flaw will challenge him (and the audience) to learn the theme.
Hint 1: It should be moral or emotional.
For example: if a character has been crippled and is learning to walk again, the character flaw is not the physical handicap. It’s his disbelief in himself, his blinding rage at the drunk driver who hit him, his fear he will never walk again, etc. KM Weiland refers to this as “the lie the character believes”.
Hint 2: It should be significant.
Quirks, pet peeves, and tics are not flaws. Dysfunctions, prejudices, and vices are. The character’s flaw is something so bad that it can and does actively threaten the things that he wants and/or needs.
Given his flaw, what’s the worst thing that could happen to him?
Stories are not random events! Oft-abused writing advice says to “make something bad” happen when you’re stuck. But you don’t just want to write “the worst thing that could happen”. You want to write the worst thing that could happen to this character.
Although this is vastly oversimplifying story structure, at the end of the day a story is a series of scenes that challenge the character’s flaw in new and evolving ways, until he either accepts or rejects the theme.
Here are some examples.
If your character’s flaw is that she’s a perennial lone wolf, the worst thing that could happen to her is to force her onto a closely-knit team.
If he despises settlers from the Jovian moons, force him into a scenario where he has to bum a ride off-world from a trio of mean-looking Jovian miners.
If he’s a house mouse terrified of being snatched by birds, force him across the lawn on a quest to enlist aid from the field mice.
Notice I said “force”? Make your characters choose between change or death.
For further example…
Let your lone wolf’s attempts at taking on the terrorists solo fail spectacularly. Let her get shot and crawl back, knowing she needs medical attention from the teammates she alienated.
Your Jovian racist? Don’t let him hang around on the planet waiting for a different crew. Let the bookies catch up with him, and give him no choice but to hop the first ship he can find.
Your timid house mouse? His mother is on her deathbed, and if he doesn’t reach the field mice for the cure before the next moon, she’ll die.
A final hint.
“Death” can be loss of many things, not just physical life – a promotion, an engagement, custody of the kids, a friendship. “Change” is whatever growth the character needs to make to overcome the flaw.
The Bottom Line:
Make ‘em choose, and you’ve got a story!
In future posts, I’ll elaborate on using these techniques, plus theme, to write scenes from the ground up. For now, know that these 2 plotting questions aren’t just for pantsers, and they’re not just for the first draft, either. These are the same 2 questions I am using to guide rewrites on my novel, and they’re also questions you can use to generate loglines and story hooks!
Was this helpful? Share it with your friends! And I’d love to hear from you… What’s wrong with your character? And what’s the worst thing you’re going to do to them?