This week’s topic is likely the most nebulous for me. It can be one of the hardest to reduce to specifics, but it is also one of the most important. The over-reaching ideas for your characters, plot and setting are the basis for the entire story. You need a good, solid base in order to have a cohesive, readable story that takes you from introduction to conflict to a satisfying resolution. Let’s take a look.
First up is character building. You will often hear writers discuss whether they are character-driven or story-driven. What this means, for those character-driven writers, is that some prefer to start with vivid characters they can really ‘see’ and take it from there. I am definitely one of those. When writing a story, you will spend an unbelievable amount of time with the characters. They will drive you, tease you, thrill you, and at times refuse to speak to you. They will live in your head, chattering away. At times the constant buzz can get distracting, but telling them to shut up is the last thing I want to do.
Where do they come from? All over. Remember my example from last week about the lady in the funny hat? Sometimes people I see will stir a character idea. Sometimes, as I noted with the historical I wrote last fall, they just appear, ready to go. Those are the lucky days. Generally, for me, a character will whisper from the shadows, spilling just enough hints about himself (or herself), to pique my interest. I’ll poke and prod them to get them to give up more details.
Sometimes it take gentle coaxing. Sometimes the character will unload their whole story as if they’ve been waiting years for someone to listen to them. Most are in-between, and we do this little dance for a bit while we get to know each other. This is the most essential step. As this character’s writer, I need to know all I can about them if I am going to portray them in an accurate, believable manner. Besides, I want them to like me. After all, we are going to be spending a lot of time together.
For those writers who are story-driven, the plot’s the thing. This is where they start – the “Oh, what if this happened? What then?” moment. But whether they start with characters or plot, every writer needs a great story. This is the meat to go with your potatoes, er, characters. What happens to them? How does it affect them? What do they learn? Is it believable and does it draw in the reader so they keep turning pages, reading to the end?
A well-developed plot needs three things for each character: goals, motivation, conflict. What do they want to accomplish? What drives them, keeps them going in the face of adversity? And what is that adversity that interferes with their goals, threatens their happiness? How do they face it? And perhaps most importantly, how does it change them in the end? What do they learn and are they better for it? The best plots are those with layers, details that add to the story, making it more complete. To continue our meat and potatoes analogy, the seasoning that makes it all work. To quote Shrek, “Ogres have layers. Onions have layers. You get it?”
I mentioned believable regarding plot. Believable does not have to mean possible and proven by current scientific and social rules. If it did, Dracula would never have gotten off the ground. What this means is, within the scope of your story and characters, do you pull the reader in effectively so they stick with your story? Is this believable in the world you have created? Here’s the one area that some writers adore, others hate. World building. Whichever side of the line you fall on, we all have to do it.
Where does the story take place? Can you make the reader see it? Is it complete? Does it have layers? Some genres are easier than others in the world building department. If you are writing a story set in the current day in your hometown, well, you can simply observe and record, changing as needed. But what if you are writing science-fiction set centuries into the future? Then you’ll be building this place from the ground up and it better be believable within the rules of your universe.
Wait, there are rules? You better believe it. When you set about building your own world, whatever form it takes, there are rules, your own natural laws if you will, that determine how things work. You need to establish them and stick to them. Your readers certainly will expect you to follow them. Nothing guarantees a reader will throw your book across the room, and not go pick it back up, like abandoning your ‘laws’ for the sake of plot convenience.
Include details makes it richer, more developed, more believable. What’s the social structure? The government? How do they dress, what do they eat, what sort of entertainment do they prefer? World building is not all about the mountains, rivers, and cities, it’s about the society too. What is acceptable, what’s taboo? And is Desperate Housewives still popular in its 487th season?
This all skims the surface, of course, but it does give a good idea of what goes into the structure of your story. Everything you do from here till the end of it depends on these things. Take your time and make them detailed and rich.
Layers. You get it?