I’ve worked with hundreds of genre novelists over the past few years, as an editor, “plotstorm” partner, and coach. My job is to help them take the swirling, chaotic mess of characters and premise fragments and “cool ideas”, and guide them to a clear, cohesive vision of how the story could work.
In all that time, I’ve noticed that when a writer is stuck, there are four basic questions which identify where they’re getting tripped up, and often how to fix it.
Keep in mind: these are most applicable to genre-geared three act structure. That said, they can apply to any story. If you’re feeling stuck, see if you can answer these four questions:
- What does your character want?
If you don’t know what your protagonist wants, both in life in general and in this story particularly, then odds are good you’re going to get stuck. Protagonists are characters who, as a direct result of their journey through the struggles of the novel, change and grow. They also go from reactive to proactive. Consequently, they need to want something.
This is also best put in positive terms. State what the character wants as opposed to what he doesn’t want. It’s better to say “the character wants to make it to the American embassy” rather than “the character wants to evade the bad guys.”
For one thing, the first statement is clear, tangible, and measurable. He’s either at the embassy, or he’s not. As long as he’s not in the hands of the bad guys, on the other hand, he’s technically “evading the bad guys.”
At the very least, put a time limit or other tangible restriction on it – evade the bad guys until the package gets delivered or something. (Although, in that case, it seems like the characters goal would then be ensure delivery of the package… you see how that works?)
(The other side of this coin: if you have a story with an antagonist, knowing what he wants is also crucial. He can’t simply be bad simply because you want a conflicting force. That’s how mustache twirling two-dimensional villains occur. Nobody wants that.)
- What is the consequence if the character doesn’t achieve what he wants?
This is a test for stakes, which I’ve discussed in depth in an earlier post.
The character must not only want something, he must want it very, very badly. We don’t want to see someone ambling through a story, bouncing against new characters and situations like a pinball, with no direction of his own.
He can be confused, he can be reluctant, but he’s got to have a clear desire, and there needs to be a real and significant consequence if the goal isn’t met. That will increase urgency, both for the protagonist and for the reader.
- What’s the worst thing that can happen to the character, in terms of the story goal?
Note that last phrase: in terms of the story goal.
What I often hear from authors are tragic but unrelated “bad things” that could happen to a character. Say the character wants to solve a crime. The proposed worst things: he gets cancer, or he’s evicted, or his wife leaves him.
These are all bad, and they probably would impact a person’s ability to sleuth. But they aren’t directly related to the goal, or more importantly, to the motivation behind said goal. Unless it’s directly related to the central goal, it’s not the “worst thing” (or “black moment”, to use genre parlance.)
If the character wants to solve the crime because it will capture the person responsible for his wife’s death, for example, then the worst thing might be the person he suspects has no proof and will continue to live free and hurt others. To make matters worse, said killer may now target the protagonist’s sibling, child, or new love interest to further inflict pain on the protagonist. That is a way of raising the stakes, showing that the conflict can definitely get worse.
The “worst thing” question is both a test of focus, and a test of conflict scalability. If the worst thing is both ineffective and could happen relatively quickly, you may not have enough conflict to sustain a full length novel.
- How is the character different at the end of the book, as a result of the struggles he’s been through, as opposed to the beginning of the book?
Remember how I said that protagonists change and grow? This is a test of that principle.
The change must be more than simply a situational change. Let’s say you have a book, where the character goes cross country on some adventure. If the only difference in the character is the fact that he’s 3,000 miles west of where he started, then you probably don’t have a compelling novel. You can have a character in the same job, same house, same life situation, but if his attitude and character have been altered, and if he has noticeably grown and developed, then you’ve got the change readers are looking for.
Again, these are all most applicable for three act structure genre novels. If you’ve got a literary fiction novel, or a series of vignettes, these rules will not apply. But if you’re writing in pretty much any genre, then these four questions will generally get you unstuck — and writing — in a hurry.
Let’s put it into practice. In the comments, can you answer at least one of these questions for your current work in progress?