I have a question – how do [you] learn to think in story? . . . . So far, I’ve started a dozen stories that have fizzled out from lack of creative fuel. Any advice for learning to invent and develop characters and stories? Thank you!
Some people are natural storytellers. (Hi, Krissie.) Some people are not. (That would be me.) Those of you who are natural storytellers should go somewhere else now because the stuff in this post is just going to screw you up. For the rest of us, here are some coping strategies:
1. Your first draft is your don’t-look-down Good Parts draft. That is, you write all the fun stuff without worrying about whether it makes sense. It doesn’t have to be in chronological order. Names can change. You can write sex scenes that would make a hooker blush or just write “sex scene here” and move on. You can do anything you want, as long as it’s your people doing things on the page. They do have to keep moving, they can’t just sit and think or do too much sittin’ and talkin’, keep those bodies in motion because character is action.
2. At some point you will start to panic because your draft is all over the place. Telling yourself that it’s okay, that it’s a first draft, that it’s supposed to be all over the place, will only work for so long. So that’s when you start building yourself a net. And the basis of the net is
Protagonist (goal) vs. Antagonist (goal)
or if you prefer your plot stated as a question:
Will the protagonist defeat the antagonist and get his or her goal?
If you’re like me, you’ll be able to identify your protagonist. The rest is a mystery. So you move onto . . .
3. Look at what you have written and figure out what the protagonist wants. This has to be a positive, concrete goal. It can’t be world peace or inner peace or love or revenge, it has to be defusing the bomb, or building a temple, or having a big wedding, or filling somebody’s car with shrimp. It has to be something that the protagonist will have to move her body to get. If the goal is that she doesn’t want to love again because she’s been hurt before, you’re screwed because that’s a negative goal. A positive goal is something she wants, not something she’s saying no to. A positive goal is something she’ll move out of her comfort zone to get, cross personal boundaries to achieve, kill to possess. A positive goal keeps a protagonist saying, “Yes” and moving fast; a negative goal keeps a protagonist saying, “No,” and freezes her in place (boring and annoying). Figure out what the protagonist’s positive goal is, and you’re halfway home.
4. Okay, you have a protagonist and a goal. Now why can’t she get it? What and, more importantly, who is standing in her way? That character is the antagonist, and once you have him or her identified, then you do the same goal hunt that you did for the protagonist. The antagonist’s goal can be the same as the protagonist’s–they both want the Ark of the Covenant–or they can be completely different, the only things that are necessary is that the characters MUST have these goals or they’ll die (physically or emotionally) and these goals must bring them into direct conflict: only one can win and the other will then be defeated utterly and destroyed. (The conflict box is a BIG help here.)
5. Now go back and rewrite what you have to shape your narrative so that it’s a battle between your protagonist and antagonist, raising the stakes as they both cross boundaries, and speeding up the pacing as they race toward their final battle. Then keep writing the new scenes you need and revising and writing and revising and writing and revising . . .
That’s basic, classic linear structure. There are a million other structures you can use so this one may not be yours, but the vast majority of print and film stories are linear.
After that it’s just a long, hard slog through a million revisions, holding onto that central story idea. Good luck!