StoryCraft with B.C. Palmer – Part 1
Ideas for stories are a dime a million. Any author will tell you this, and what they mean when they say it is normally that the kernels of ideas for stories arise spontaneously all the time for them. Even when they need to be focused on other things.
But making the leap from ‘idea’ to ‘story’ often proves challenging to new writers and experienced authors alike. How do you turn “what if a parallel universe crashed into ours?” into something that can be written as the story of a specific character, or cast of characters? There is a lot of advice out there, and much of it is excellent. I’m going to add to that canon five of my own personal favorite ways of jump-starting an idea to start writing.
1. Goal vs. Problem
One of the most common bits of advice given about creating a character for your story is to know what that character’s goal is. That isn’t bad advice by any stretch—you definitely need to understand what your main character’s goal is for all sorts of reasons that belong to another discussion.
However, I’m going to give that common sense advice just a little twist. Sometimes, when you’re stuck, it’s better to know what your character’s problem is first. Trying to come up with a goal before the problem can lead to something vague or abstract. A goal like “completeness” or “true love” is fine for a good thematic backbone of a story, but how will the reader measure a goal like that and whether your character achieved it? You’ll have to tell them at some point, “Pat was finally X.” It’s difficult to show abstracts in a definitive sort of way that will bring closure to that story arc.
If instead you begin with a problem (“The King’s Guard is coming to arrest Pat.”) then the goal makes itself fairly obvious right away, and it’s normally something concrete that you as the storyteller can then address, and make it very clear just by the events of the story when that goal has been achieved. (“Pat has to clear his name, and we’ll know he’s achieved that goal when his name is cleared.”)
As a bonus, giving your character an immediate problem leads to a much stronger first chapter. Open on that problem, and you’ll engage readers more or less instantly with the story. It’s not the only thing to do with your first chapter, but it’s a big one. If your problem is genre oriented, you’ll also signal to your reader right away what they’re about to read. And, of course, as a minor bonus you will know what you’re actually writing about!
2. Personal Problem vs. Big Problem
Once you’ve got a handle on your personal problem, it becomes easier to tie it into a bigger problem, one that the character can’t initially see. This is where your big plot comes in.
In some cases, that bigger problem may be simple. A character’s small bookstore is struggling because a big box store opened across the street, or a character’s village is starving because a plague of demons has overrun the world. The distance in scope from your personal problem to your big story problem will help you define the breadth and depth of your story quickly, and how wide and deep it needs to be will be a matter of genre and personal style.
In science fiction and fantasy, often that scope is vast—the fate of an entire world, a galaxy, even all of reality itself. In contemporary romance, your big problem will usually be fairly local in nature, anywhere from rivalry between two love interests to a small town problem to something with a bit more reach like a political issue.
Whatever your scope is, defining the personal problem, the story problem, and the relationship between them will flesh out your idea into something that’s ready to be shaped into an actual story with structure and pace.
3. Bridging the Gap
Building a series of goals between a personal problem and the big story problem is where a lot of the Story in a story comes from. Problems, you see, don’t ultimately change until they’re resolved. A personal problem on page one is generally going to stay a problem until the end of the story. The big story problem is likewise going to have to stick around until the story is done, and in fact you’ll know the story is done when that problem is solved (or at least, when a portion of it is solved or an even bigger root problem is revealed, as in the case of some longer series.)
Goals, on the other hand, can and should change. Your main character, on page one, has a problem and our first introduction to that character is their decision to set a goal that (they hope) will solve that problem. This process of deciding what the goal is will tell us a lot about the character, so you’re pulling double duty in the bargain.
Except, there’s an obstacle to that solution, which becomes the next problem on the conflict ladder toward what’s really at stake in the story, and requires a new goal. Or, solving one problem raises another.
For example, Pat is going to be arrested by the King’s Guard, and his immediate question is probably, “Dear gods, why me, what did I do?” So, goal number one is easy: find out why they’re being arrested. The answer could be that they’re believed to have assassinated the prince. Now there’s a whole new, but related, problem which is that Pat certainly did not assassinate the prince; so why was it pinned on them? Time to dig deeper, get more answers, confront ever more complicated problems, as Pat gets embroiled in a kingdom-wide coup they didn’t even know was happening on page one—and now, of course, they have to stop it from happening. Or join the fun! Either way, it’s your story.
But you can see how a problem presents a clear goal, reaching that goal can be a tool for discovering the next problem, which establishes the next goal, and so on. Keep going, and before you know it you’ve got a plot. At each stage, just make the problem bigger and harder to solve, and you’ll naturally raise the stakes as you go. It’s not all the work, but it’s a large chunk of it.
Building this problem bridge will inevitably bring up all manner of complications to the story, to the character’s lives, possibly even to the story world at large. Don’t fret!
4. Embrace Complication
Writing a story can be a daunting, scary proposition, and the bigger it gets the scarier it seems. Complications can and will certainly arise if you follow a problem to a goal to a new problem and make an effort to make each problem ultimately unsolvable until the next one is dealt with. At some point it is likely that you will run into a corner, where it seems the character has no way out. That’s a good thing.
There is always a solution to every problem, especially when it comes to genre fiction. Complications will make your story more engaging, raise the stakes, bring out depth in your characters as they have to struggle against all the crap you throw at them. And when things get especially tight, it’s easy to feel as though all of this is happening right now, and because there isn’t a tool in your character’s immediate vicinity, you’ve therefore trapped yourself. How can you possibly continue like this?
The answer is very simple: the story isn’t happening now. It is happening all at once, and you have the god-like power to alter past, present, and future to your whim. If you find yourself tangled in a complication that you can’t seem to write your character out of, there is one way that you really can’t go wrong with in most genres, and it is this:
Ask yourself, what is the coolest way my character, being who they are, could get out of this corner? Answer that, and then go back and give the character the tools they need to come to that solution. One thing that so many writers seem to forget when they’re in the thick of the story is that until it’s published, it’s still a draft. Everything is malleable. And often, delivering the right solution to a story-corner is just about going back a few chapters, or to the previous act, and scribbling in a window for them to crawl out of when they get there.
Keeping this mindset will put your mind at ease, and allow you the freedom to complicate your story as much as you want. Which leaves us at the final bit of advice getting started on your story.
5. Welcome the First Draft (and the second, and third…)
There is no escape from the first draft. Yes, it is true that you will gradually hone your storytelling instincts with practice, and after you have written fifty novels, short stories, screenplays, or whatever other kind of fiction you write, you’ll end up putting out pretty decent first drafts.
But no one escapes revision. The ones that try, ultimately learn that revision is your good friend, who loves you, and wants only the best for you, and is there for you when you doubt yourself. Revision is the soul of good fiction. You wouldn’t scoop clay from the river and plop it on your coffee table and call it a vase. Or, you could, but you’re going to raise a few questions.
There is peace and serenity to be found in committing yourself to writing what you know is going to be a first draft. It means you have the freedom to fail, write yourself into a corner, go back and draw a window and get out of it. You can go wild and write with abandon when you know that it is only the first draft of what will likely be at least three. Your story can go anywhere, you can follow all the bunny trails. And most of all, you can do it fast.
Novels do not take a long time to write. What takes a long time is plodding along through a novel stopping every few paragraphs to make calculated decisions when you don’t know what all the variables are yet. Getting the first draft down is about laying out the variables, getting the raw, ugly, unpolished shape of the story in front of you so that you can actually see it. Even if you thoroughly plot your story, if you are like 99% of other writers in the world, your story will ultimately buck against the plot and end up similar in principle but very different in execution. It’s a journey, it’s a discovery, and that’s the way the best stories are conceived.
Once you’ve got a character with a problem, a bigger problem that’s ultimately at work in the character’s life, a bridge between those two points with lots of new goals, problems, discoveries and complications galore, even if you don’t know how it ends you’ve got all the map you really need. Compelling story structure is another discussion, but all the structure in the world can’t make a blank page interesting to readers!
B.C. Palmer is a fantasy author based in the Wood River Valley in Idaho, USA with his husband Scott and his dog Mac. He is one half of the co-founding team behind Harbinger Press.