I live in an arts colony in Woodstock five months of the year, and I’m fascinated by the painters there. They have a different relationship to time than writers do. They aren’t heading anywhere, because for them, a painting is forever. It exists as a moment frozen in time, and people can look at it for as little or as long as they wish. A painting or a sculpture may even tell a story of sorts, but it is essentially static.
Stories, though, are different. If paintings are lakes, stories are rivers; they are going somewhere. They pull the reader along, and take us on a journey. Stories must move forward.
I once heard it said that a good method of creating compelling stories is to write about something that we would never, ever want to happen to us or anyone we care about. That certainly can lead to a strong premise. Boy falls five stories and survives, but is horribly disabled. Woman loses her child to a serial killer, only to find the criminal is her husband. Man awakens one day to find himself transformed into a giant cockroach.
I just wanted to make sure you were paying attention.
But a great premise can be equally wrought from something mysterious or wonderful. Five British children living in wartime England discover a Sand Fairy living in their uncle’s greenhouse (Five Children and It by Edith Nesbit). A young girl and her brother are transported by three angelic ladies through the universe, where they encounter strange and wonderful beings (A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle). And the list goes on.
Think of something dramatic or horrible or wondrous, and you can probably come with a decent premise. But plenty of great stories have been crafted around relatively mundane ideas. A young man takes a bus ride with his mother (“Everything That Rises Must Converge” by Flannery O’Connor). Forced by financial difficulties to go to work, a lazy man lies about himself in order to get a job (Action Will Be Taken by Heinrich Boll).
But a great premise is only part of the game, and not that big a part, unless you’re writing speculative fiction, fantasy, or maybe magic realism. What we need as writers is to be able to play the long game, to keep the ball in the air as long as possible, which means to keep readers turning the page.
Let’s face it, people are lazy. But nobody wants to read about lazy people, at least not for very long. We want to read about people who are energetic, more motivated, and more driven than your brother-in-law Larry who likes to sit around and smoke weed all day, or your niece Karen who just wants to flop down by the pool and text her friends on her iPhone. But once in a while we read stories about people like Larry or Karen that actually draw us in. How can that be?
Even someone as slothful as Larry or indolent as Karen can be the protagonist of a story if you present them with a problem they must solve, and then never let up the pressure until they solve it or die trying. Well, they don’t have to actually die. Except sometimes. It all depends on the kind of story you’re writing.
People do things because they feel pressure from one of two places: internal or external. Internal pressure can come in the form of an obsession, such as love or revenge or the drive to create. External pressure comes from the outside world, and can be as simple as the physical need for survival or as complex as global politics. Some external forces can’t be ignored—the physical needs of the body in order to survive, for example—but internal forces can be just as powerful. We all react in varying degrees to internal or external forces. The trick is to find the goal that keeps your protagonist wanting, needing, hoping, and be willing to do anything to achieve it.
Then, once we have that desire firmly in place, we put as many obstacles between them and their goal as we can possibly invent. The more, the merrier. One good technique is to place the internal and external forces at odds. In Peter Schaeffer’s play Amadeus, Mozart’s drive to create is thwarted by financial pressures, the demands of a young family, the political climate, and the machinations of the evil Salieri. In Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, Jean Valjean’s need to feed his family is thwarted by the social and political forces that led to his poverty; later, his drive to remain a free man is thwarted by the relentless pursuit by Inspector Javert.
One of the ways to drive your story forward is to make the stakes as high as possible for your characters. One way to do this is to make the desired goal very personal. In Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, Sam Spade really needs to know who killed his partner, Miles. He’s a detective, so it’s his job to solve murders, but, as they say in the movie trailers, this time it’s personal. Miles was his partner, for god’s sake! So many crime writers use this technique that it’s become almost a cliché, but that doesn’t render it ineffective.
Another key is to give the protagonist something to lose. Sam Spade will lose both his self-respect and his professional reputation if he fails to find Miles’ killer. There is also a good chance whoever killed Miles will come to get him.
Another way to raise the stakes is to widen the importance of the story into the society at large. The more people affected by the threat the protagonist must overcome, the higher the stakes. This is wonderfully clear in the premise of Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain. What is at stake is simply the survival of mankind. Either we win or the virus kills everyone alive. Okay, you may not think we’re the greatest thing that ever happened to this planet, but if contemplating our total annihilation doesn’t send a chill up your spine, you’re probably too thick-skinned to be a writer. And defeated by a virus? Crichton makes his scientists struggle mightily against Nature herself. And, as we all know, you can’t fool her . . .
Another thing you can do is beat up your protagonist physically or emotionally. In Friedrich Durrenmatt’s dark crime novel The Judge and His Hangman, the protagonist, Detective Baerlach, suffers from stomach cancer. In the middle of trying to catch a criminal, he must deal with the ongoing attacks of pain from his disease. If you give your hero a weakness, you can use that to make his life more difficult. Imagine a character who is afraid of heights, or elevators, or other people.
Janet Burroway has a neat little formula: Drama = Desire + Danger. And the greater the desire, or need, the greater the possibilities for drama. But to make the story work, you have to add the key element of danger. I have my own mantra to spur me on to gripping storylines: the greater the danger, the more you interest a stranger. In other words, your readership is in direct proportion to how much you make your characters struggle to get what they want, and how much you put them at risk.
A lot of people seem to enjoy talking about why Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code didn’t deserve the success it had, but maybe we should ask instead why it was such a global bestseller. Two words: premise and danger. What Dan Brown had in The Da Vinci Code was a kick-ass premise (hate it or love it, you have to admit it’s crazy, kick-ass awesome).
The other thing Brown did so well was to never let up the sense of constant threat. Never. From the minute his historian-turned-sleuth gets the call to come to the Louvre, there is an overwhelming sense that his life is in danger. Better yet, the threats come from several different directions, and Robert is never sure who is behind it until the end.
The first draft of my thriller Silent Screams (written as C. E. Lawrence) had the characters sitting around in coffee shops talking about the nature of good and evil. Boring! After reading The DaVinci Code, I added a shooting, a beating, a hanging, a car chase, and another murder. The book sold within a few weeks.
In comedy, the definition of “danger” is interesting. It can be essentially anything that threatens the image or social status of the characters. And comic characters can have very twisted notions of what constitutes “victory,” like the classic Seinfeld episode in which George refuses to break up with a woman he loathes because he needs to prove Crazy Joe Davola was wrong to call him “a heartbreaker.” This bizarre notion of happiness is often one of the things that defines a comic character.
This article first appeared in The Writer magazine.