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.