Every writer knows that moment when she sits down in front of a blank computer screen and stares dumbly, at a loss for how to begin. Sometimes we fly to our keyboard because an idea has taken hold of us, and those are the best times. But often, especially for a working writer, it’s discipline that puts us in that chair, and a need for output that keeps us there. What to do if you don’t have that killer idea already?
Prolific writers know that you can’t wait for inspiration. You have to–occasionally–nudge your muse to get her to work with you! On those days, it helps to think of the essential elements of a story. If the elements are strong enough, the story will grow. I’m a listmaker, so I love a nice, tidy, numbered list of things to think about:
1. Create a protagonist
What sort of character excites you? A strong woman, a sensitive man, a smart-ass kid?
Think about your protagonist’s history, her upbringing, her situation, her personality. It always helps if there’s something unique about her, something that sets her apart. It’s good, too, to avoid cliches–lately the kick-ass spunky heroine has been dominating the field, to the point where it’s expected–so perhaps you can come up with another way to make your readers connect with your main character.
2. Decide what your protagonist wants
It’s axiomatic that every character–just like every person–wants something. Love? Power? Escape? It needs to be something definite, something that will motivate your protagonist to take action.
3. Begin in media res, in the middle of things
My often-repeated maxim is that “The story starts where the trouble starts.” Think about the fairy tales you’ve known since childhood. Cindrella’s story begins not when the invitation to the ball arrives, but when her stepmother says she can’t go. Snow White’s story begins when the wicked queen (my favorite character) orders the huntsman to take her out into the forest and kill her. Try a short exposition, to put your readers into the setting, and then put your protagonist in danger.
4. Give your protagonist challenges
We writers love our characters (see above, my affection for the wicked queen). We hate hurting them, stressing them, imperiling them, but that’s where the story is. Story is drama, and drama comes from conflict. The more challenges your protagonist faces, the more compelling your story will be.
5. Let your protagonist solve her own problems
When Cinderella’s stepmother locks her in a back room so she can’t have her turn at trying on the glass slipper, she should escape on her own! Characters should act, not be acted upon–in other words, they should be proactive, not passive. They will be stronger, more memorable, and your story will be more convincing.
If you haven’t yet, I recommend studying Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth, or even better, watch the wonderful program of interviews Bill Moyers did with him. Notice how the mythical hero, in Campbell’s analysis, tries and fails, tries and fails, and eventually–with help, but with the knowledge and strength he’s gained through his journey–succeeds. Of course your character can fail, and if you’re writing a tragedy, that’s the right result. It’s best, however, if even the failure of your protagonist has the effect of changing things, something left behind that matters to the other characters in the story.
Here are some story examples taken from familiar tales which help to illustrate these steps:
Harry Potter: What does Harry want? (To know what happened to his parents; to get away from his awful aunt and uncle and cousin; to use his magic) Where does the story start? (With Harry living in a closet under the stairs, and with a magic owl trying to get him a message) What are his challenges? (His aunt and uncle, his attempts to survive at Hogwarts, his enemy Voldemort) Does Harry solve his own problems? (Sometimes. Hermione does an awful lot of it.)
Superman: Wants to protect “truth, justice, and the American way”. His story begins with the destruction of his home planet and a very scary spaceship journey. His challenges are Kryptonite, and protecting the ones he loves, like his parents and Lois Lane. He solves his own problems all the time.
Lord of the Rings: Frodo wants to get the Ring to Mount Doom. This is a classic hero’s journey in the style of Joseph Campbell. The story begins with Bilbo passing the Ring on to Frodo. Frodo is nearly killed more than once. After many challenges, and help from his friend, and after the temptation not to part with the Ring almost ruins him, he manages to let it go into the volcano (with poor Smeagol, of course).
I hope this gives you some ideas! You’re welcome to visit my website for more writing tips: www.louisemarley.com Click on “Music and Writing” and then on “Teaching Tools”. Feel free to download any of the information you find useful.