Most of us could not hack the lives of fictional protagonists because everything they do and everywhere they turn, events are designed to shriek denials, thwart desire, and erect roadblocks. Plots and scenes are built on forces and characters that stand in their way, blocking something they desperately wants or needs, delaying gratification. The results are disaster, failure, and heartbreak. As frustration, misfortune, reversals and losses pile up, you swear the poor sod or lass is about to crumble. And then you slap them around some more. Such is fiction.
No = Stress
You see, storytelling boils down to conflict and opposition and both stem from a single word: no. And although it sounds simplistic, your job when plotting is to say no to just about everything your protagonist wants or attempts. True, you’ll throw in a ‘yes’ now and then, but not too many, and not until the last possible moment. In the best stories more than one person, situation, or force says no to your protagonist, and from every quarter. In fact, the no’s, the tortures, the refusals, thwarting your protagonist’s large and small desires and goals should be adamant, constant and tortuous and should happen in large and small events.
There is nothing as unsatisfying and lacking suspense as a storyline where problems are easily solved, clues appear as if by magic or intuition, love is instantaneous and seldom rocky, people always agree and are agreeable, and everyday conditions never interfere with the protagonist’s comfort.
All these obstacles are not simply designed to
create roadblocks, but reveal your protagonist in a fictional pressure cooker. The more often you say no, your protagonist’s chief flaws will be exposed, and as he’s threatened and worn down, this creates suspense because the reader is worried about the outcome. It’s also delicious when desperate and thwarted, he chooses the wrong means to achieve a goal, which, of course, just leads to more conflict.
Setting is a powerful device for creating tension in fiction. When you’re planning scenes where danger lurks, here’s the trick: turn down the lights. Link moonless skies, gray curtains of rain, or gloomy weather to a deathbed vigil, a battle scene, or harrowing journey. Force characters to travel down lonely, lawless stretches of road. If you want to conjure up a dark, scary world, bring on haze, fog, smog, mist-shrouded mountains, freezing rain, the gloaming, deepening of twilight. Stir in bruised skies, dying embers, shadowy alleyways and ravines, turbulent seas, dense forests, savage winds, a murder of crows.
If you’re feeling beneficent, your characters can stumble along in the dark carrying waning candles, sputtering torches, or flickering lamp light. Or, your setting can create trial after trial for your characters, the results exhausting, scarring, soul poisoning.
Color brings us all deep pleasures, but at times you must snatch it away, mute the story world for effect. Humans operate at a disadvantage in the dark. We have an innate unease with nighttime and dark places. Dim the lights to create insecurity or reveal a landscape of grief and loss. Tease your with readers with uneasiness, make them sense peril, fears monsters that might lurk in the dark….
I was corresponding with a client a few days ago about his opening paragraph. In it there was a sentence bloated with abstract terms that just sort of hunkered or sprawled flattened on the page. Instead of abstractions, here’s a foundation from where you can begin most writing: with the artifacts of everyday life. You see, if the reader can somehow enter the world you’re describing in the same way he lives in the real world, then he will become seduced, immersed in the ideas, emotions, and truths you’re revealing.
Thus fiction and nonfiction writing starts with the tangible because it is immersive, the writer breathing life into the story. The real world is made up of things we’re always noticing—Cumulus clouds, paperback books and armchairs, an old person’s tottering gait, marching bands, Sharpie pens, red boots, a worn purple sofa, a belching city bus, the metal-colored winter sky. Details pull in readers, create a sense of place, reveal people, action and tension, making experiences and thoughts poignant, sensory, and alive. Include the tangible to anchor your words, to give a reader a place to visit, invite him or her into the story world.
When I emailed the writer I told him this: Imagine the opening as if your readers are walking into your story world like they’re first arriving at a new destination far from home. Before they reach the hotel, they need directions to find it, need a key to their room, then they can settle in and unpack their suitcases. If the world is thinly-drawn or doesn’t have a threat or conflict to pull in the reader, those suitcases never get unpacked. And fiction set back in time or far from our current reality such as the future on another planet, require even more tangible details.
We had been wandering for so long I forgot what it was like to live within walls or sleep through the night. In that time I lost all I might have possessed if Jerusalem had not fallen: a husband, a family, a future of my own. My girlhood disappeared in the desert. The person I’d once been vanished as I wrapped myself in white when the dust rose into clouds. We were nomads, leaving behind beds and belongings, rugs and brass pots. Now our house was the house of the desert, black at night, brutally white at noon.
They say the truest beauty is in the harshest land and that God can be found there by those with open eyes. But my eyes were closed against the shifting winds that can blind a person in an instant. Breathing itself was a miracle when the storms came whirling across the earth. The voice that arises out of the silence is something no one can imagine until it is heard. It roars when it speaks, it lies to you and convinces you, it steals from you and leaves you without a single word of comfort. Comfort cannot exist in such a place. What is brutal survive What is cunning lives until morning.
My skin was sunburned, my hands raw. I gave in to the desert, bowing to its mighty voice. Everywhere I walked my fate walked with me, sewn to my feet with red thread. All that will ever be has already been written long before it happens. There is nothing we can do to stop it. I couldn’t run in the other direction. The roads from Jerusalem led to only three places: to Rome, or to the sea, or to the desert. My people had become wanderers, as they had been at the beginning of time, cast out yet again.
I followed my father out of the city because I had no choice.
None of us did, if the truth be told.
See more here.
If you don’t understand the underpinnings of fiction, you’ll likely suffer and bumble when you try to create it. Without some knowledge of the why, when and how things work, your story has little chance of success. Writing something as complicated as a novel without a plan is like building a house without an architectural diagram. This might have worked in the old days of one-room log cabins, but these days with wiring, plumbing, central heat and other necessities, a plan is a must.
Act 1 is essentially the set up of your novel, novella, or screenplay. It establishes the story world, the tone, introduces the main characters, and starts off the central conflict. But more importantly, it features an event that kicks off the story called the inciting incident. Stories start with trouble so begin your tale by disturbing the equilibrium in your story world. This event should be a threat. Openings always feature the ordinary world being disrupted and someone (not necessarily your protagonist) being thrown off balance by this action. So forget ‘once upon a time.’ This inciting incident is a catalyst or springboard that starts the story moving along because the ordinary world has been disturbed. It’s the sparks the action and sets the trajectory for the story. Once things are catapulted off balance, this state of imbalance will continue until the climax when it is somehow restored, however shaky and strange.
Also, and this is important, someone must be under stress or thrown off balance. No stress, no tension, no reader sympathy. In The Hunger Games, Prim, a naive and sweet 12-year-old, is chosen to represent District 12 in the annual deadly games. In a few deft lines the reader has learned that Prim is hardly up to the gruesome battle to the death since she still climbs into bed with her mother on nights she’s frightened.
In John Green’s The Fault in our Stars we learn that 16-year-old Hazel Grace Lancaster is depressed and has terminal cancer. At her mother’s urging she attends a support group for kids with cancer. And she doesn’t want to go. In the opening scenes of Shrek we see the ogre as an uncouth slob living peacefully in his beloved swamp….but then….Lord Farquaad settles fairy tale creatures there disrupting paradise, stressing him out, and destroying his ogre version happiness. Lord Farquaad promises to remove the fairy tale creatures after Shrek rescues Princess Fiona from a dragon-guarded castle. Notice how the stress comes from outside the protagonist.
Start with a threat–even your character meeting her true love should represent a threat. Or to quote an old bit of wisdom, ‘shoot the sheriff on the first page.’
Fiction is based on a dramatic situation where interesting people experience interesting problems that seem unsolvable. As the story progresses important events will unfold until the problem is resolved. Pretty simple, right?
But what of you is in the story? Each of us mines from within. Do you have a story that has nestled within you for years? We all have our own truths, passions, ghosts, and worries. Most of us have had our heart torn open, have felt grievous loss and unfairness. Many of us hold secrets we dare not share.
If you’re a writer, start from self knowledge. What scares you? What makes you angry? What keeps you awake in the lonely hours before dawn? What are the themes in your life? Why did you start writing in the first place? What passion called you to storytelling? Our most potent writing comes from our deepest fears and darkest secrets.
If you want to create a novel you won’t abandon mid-story, write toward your fears. Crawl into the shadows and uncover ghosts. Ruminate about your grudges, pet peeves, hungers, enemies. What has shamed you? Make sure the feelings you bring to your writing desk are deep and real and powerful.
Writing is how we come to understand things. If you can’t remember your scars it will be difficult to imbue your characters with deep emotions. We all use these parts of life in our writing. Trying to forget the blistering parts of your past—trying to repress or deny reality—will weaken your creative vitality. And it takes sooo much energy to hide your pain and scars. Better to write it out, to unearth the restless dead. Better to endow your scars onto a character than to keep picking at them.
Here, I walk into class thinking, Really I have nothing to say to these people, the proper study of writing is reading, is well-managed awe, desire to make a thing, stamina for finishing, adoration of language, and so on about reverie, solitude, etc. Here, sitting down, I’m going over my secret: I don’t want to be inspiring, I just want to write and they, too, should want that – let’s all agree to go home and work hard.”
– Lia Purpura
We’ve been suffering through a series of punishing heatwaves here in the Pacific Northwest and I’ve been longing for a rollicking thunderstorm to sweep through, spit out icy rain, drench the place and cool the air. Oh, to be able to change the weather.
Which brings us to verbs, because they add oomph to your sentences. Use verbs that typically describe severe weather, including clouds, storm fronts, waves, and natural disasters. TIP: Search out nouns that can be used as verbs.
Thunder, storm,scorch, blaze, scorch, freeze, boil, cloud, bloom, flood, heat, glare (as in sun), shower, rumble, slash, burn, billow, surge, morph, drip, roil,loom, sting, flash, unleash, splinter, thresh, splinter, echo, singe, sting, crash, pour, tumble, churn, flood, chill, creep, crash, drench, flare, numb, storm, bluster, blind, soak. Vivid verbs have muscle.
Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart