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.
A story is like a baseball game. Nobody wants to watch a game in which the outcome is guaranteed. What makes a game exciting is the suspense of not knowing who will triumph. (Or, as Gwendolyn says in The Importance of Being Earnest, “This suspense is terrible. I hope it will last!”) Baseball fans pour out in droves to see the New York Yankees face the Philadelphia Phillies in the World Series. They don’t come to see the Yanks play the New Jersey Beef Jerkies, the co-ed pickup team that meets every Saturday morning for slow-pitch softball. The outcome would be guaranteed, and no one would care.
Every protagonist needs an antagonist—something or someone to defeat, to struggle against. The antagonist is not always a person, nor even a thing. In Conrad Aiken’s heartbreaking “Secret Snow, Silent Snow,” the antagonist is the madness inside the boy’s head. We can also refer to anything that gets in between the protagonist and his goal as the Forces of Opposition. Depending on the genre, this can be anything from a psychopathic killer (“A Good Man Is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor) to a super spy (Eye of the Needle by Ken Follett) to a super-virus (in Michael Crichton’s techno-thriller Prey, it’s rogue nano-robots). The important thing is that it’s dangerous.You must keep the reader guessing at every turn what the outcome will be, and challenge your protagonist to display ever greater resourcefulness and courage in the struggle to achieve victory.
You can pit like against like. There is something delicious about the idea of Sherlock Holmes locking horns with the nefarious Professor Moriarty. You have perhaps the two smartest men in London, one on the side of good, the other on the side of evil. In Thomas Harris’s Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal Lector and Clarice Starling represent the unity of opposites: brilliant, manipulative serial killer against raw, unseasoned FBI rookie. And Clarice isn’t quite as innocent as we thought at first, as she is forced to find inner resources she didn’t know she had.
The dinosaurs in Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park, like Hannibal Lector, are nearly unstoppable. They’re fast, they’re deadly, and they’re smart. Remember the professor’s chilling line when he sees the velociraptors adjusting to attempts to catch them: “They’re learning.” Yikes, dinosaurs with walnut-sized brains and huge fangs who can learn!
Twists and Turns
Okay, you have your premise. It’s original and intriguing, and you know both your protagonist and antagonist. Now what? The meat and potatoes of creating story is coming up with enough twists and turns in your plot to hold the reader’s interest. Perhaps ironically, the more twists a plot takes, the more the reader experiences it as moving forward.
A plot twist is essentially a change of direction in the story—some event or realization that forces the protagonist to make an adjustment of some kind. The prime suspect in a murder mystery is killed halfway through the story. The homeless guy on the corner turns out to be the hero’s long-lost brother. Or consider one of the most famous lines in popular culture: Luke, I am your father. At that key moment in the Star Wars saga, George Lucas cleverly uses secrets hidden in his characters’ backgrounds to twist the story.
Secrets are wonderful elements in stories, and if you embed them in your backstory, you too can use them to surprise your readers. When you are creating your characters’ pasts, think about what secrets might be hidden in their backstory, and how you might use them at a key moment to reveal something unexpected. Ideally, your readers won’t see it coming, but once you reveal the surprise, they will have a moment of recognition that makes them reevaluate the entire story, just as fans of Star Wars suddenly realized that Luke’s past wasn’t what they had been led to believe all along. Because that past was hidden from Luke himself, it didn’t feel like George Lucas was cheating. We experienced the shock and realization along with the protagonist.
Another classic way of making a reader feel that a story is rushing forward is to have a ticking clock. This can be literal and external (the bomb will explode in ten minutes), or metaphorical and internal (the hero feels that at this point in his life if he doesn’t take the plunge and fall in love it will be too late for him).
Plot twists and complications come in many forms: the unexpected love affair, the lost child or ailing parent, the lingering self-doubt, the long-standing family feud, and of course, that pesky old drinking problem. Even “good” events in a character’s life can be used to complicate the plot and torment the character. Your hero falls in love (good), but the woman he loves is the sister of the criminal he’s pursuing (bad). She agrees to help him trap her brother (good), but her brother kidnaps her and holds her hostage (bad).
One of the keys to good storytelling is to turn the story as much and as often as you can, flipping the protagonist like a pancake on a hot griddle. You can think of plot as a rollercoaster ride. Your story zooms along on its track, from valley to peak and back again. As soon as the reader catches his breath when you dip into a valley, you are ready again to slide up the track to another peak, even higher than the last. A story must build; each crisis or turning point must be higher than the last, spiraling ever upward, demanding greater effort and struggle from your protagonist.
But don’t make your turning points arbitrary, flipping the story just for the sake of it. As always, you have to believe in what you write. You are essentially telling the reader that, in the world of your story, this is how life is. Readers don’t like to be lied to about the important things; they will smell a rat every time. They don’t mind believing that dinosaurs can be cloned, or that a young FBI agent could be pitted against a cunning serial killer or even that Mary Magdalene married Jesus and had his baby. But they don’t want to be lied to about the truth, the deep philosophical and spiritual truth of your story. So be true to your own vision. It will stand you in good stead. Don’t “write to the market,” or borrow someone else’s vision because you think it’s trendy. Stick with your own. Trends come and go, but truth is eternal.
In literature, as in life, a person’s character will always determine how he or she reacts to a challenge or crisis. Often the story itself is the crucible that defines a character. In the best stories, the inciting incident sets in motion a chain of events that shapes and reshapes the protagonist, so that he comes out as a different person at the end, not always for the better, but different. The outer events of the story parallel an inner shift in his character, and the result is growth and change. Unfortunately, growth is as painful in stories as it is in life, as that’s why the protagonist is “he who suffers most.”
Take your characters all the way into the dragon’s den, into the center of what they fear or are trying hard to avoid. Bring them face to face with their greatest terror, and most of all, give them choices.These choices must be difficult ones, and must present a risk either way. You must present your protagonist with two equally appealing—and equally threatening—possibilities. One classic choice is Love vs. Duty. In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Brutus is forced to choose between his love for Caesar and his duty as a Roman citizen. The result, of course, is tragic, as it often is in real life. Laura DiSilverio talks about using a What Could Be Worse scenario; once you’ve created a situation for your reader, ask yourself what could be worse. That’s a good way to keep pushing yourself to create ever more intriguing twists and choices for your characters.
My yoga teacher talks a lot about “the flow.” And in sports, too, when things are going well, athletes speak of being “in the zone” or “in the flow.” Stories, too, must flow, like rivers they wind and twist and bend through the landscape of your imagination, hopefully taking your readers with them on a journey they will not soon forget.
May the flow be with you!
This article first appeared in The Writer magazine.