Dwight Swain has a book, The Techniques of a Selling Writer, and there’s a chapter (well many) that talk about story structure, but one specifically begins like this:
“All stories are ‘about’ the same thing: desire versus danger.”Swain
So that’s a really good place to start.
What does your character desire (or as we usually say-want)?
Our characters are either trying to get or keep something and the story happens because there is danger that might keep our little heroes from getting their goals. That danger can be huge (like being called home to an oppressive space) or small (losing peace of mind), but the reader must always feel it there.
Swain says there are five basic elements to all commercially successful stories (and some of them want me to say, ‘Duh, obviously.’ Still, it’s good to look at them) and I’m going to lay those out here.
Let’s go a tiny bit more in depth, okay?
Character – This is the protagonist. The protagonist must want things. Things have to affect her. She must react to things outside herself. She must oppose the dangers that go against her wants/desires.
Situation – So this is world around the character or as Swain says, “No focal character exists in a vacuum. He operates against a backdrop of trouble that forces him to act. That backdrop, that external state of affairs, is your story situation.”
Objective—So this is what your main character wants. If she doesn’t want anything, there is no story. If she doesn’t want anything, there is nothing for her to fight for and fight against.
Opponent—This is what fights against your character’s wants. The better the opponent, the better the story. Swain writes, “Obstacles personified in a person—who not only resists but fights back—make for more exciting reading.”
Disaster – This is the climax right, the SCARIEST MOST HORRIBLE THING HAS HAPPENED. Your protagonists is in a cage, damn it, starving, cold, on display. It’s always near the end of the story.
Swain suggests writing two sentences to collate all that for your story.
“Sentence 1 is a statement. It establishes character, situation, and objective.
Sentence 2 is a question. It nails down opponent and disaster.”Swain
Here’s a try.
A local fire fighter in a conservative and sexist department wants a promotion. Will she be able to snag the captain spot that the chief doesn’t want to give her because she’s already too “weird” when she’s suddenly confronted by the magical nature of her family and the monsters they attract.
So, the reader will wonder:
Will they defeat the bad guy, deal with their inner issues and danger, and be happy/succeed in getting their want?
So, will she deal with the chief and the monsters, allow her inner weirdness to shine and get the damn promotion?
A positive character arc the answer is a yes.
A negative character arc the answer is a no.
Most static arcs are also yeses, the character just doesn’t grow.
You want the conflict in there because the conflict tells the reader that there is emotion going on in the story. And that, my friends, is what the story needs.
Thanks for listening to Write Better Now.
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