Ready to read about ingredient two? I sure am! J Rita
Ingredient #2: Crisis - This crisis that tips your character’s world upside down must, of course, be one that your protagonist cannot immediately solve. It’s an unavoidable, irrevocable challenge that sets the movement of the story into motion.
Typically, your protagonist will have the harmony of both his external world and his internal world upset by the crisis that initiates the story. One of these two imbalances might have happened before the beginning of the story, but usually at least one will occur on the page for your readers to experience with your protagonist, and the interplay of these two dynamics will drive the story forward.
Depending on the genre, the crisis that alters your character’s world might be a call to adventure—a quest that leads to a new land, or a prophecy or revelation that he’s destined for great things. Mythic, fantasy and science-fiction novels often follow this pattern. In crime fiction, the crisis might be a new assignment to a seemingly unsolvable case. In romance, the crisis might be undergoing a divorce or breaking off an engagement.
In each case, though, life is changed and it will never be the same again.
George gets fired. Amber’s son is kidnapped. Larry finds out his cancer is terminal. Whatever it is, the normal life of the character is forever altered, and she is forced to deal with the difficulties that this crisis brings.
There are two primary ways to introduce a crisis into your story. Either begin the story by letting your character have what he desires most and then ripping it away, or by denying him what he desires most and then dangling it in front of him. So, he’ll either lose something vital and spend the story trying to regain it, or he’ll see something desirable and spend the story trying to obtain it.
Say you’ve imagined a character who desires love more than anything else. His deepest fear will be abandonment. You’ll either want to introduce the character by showing him in a satisfying, loving relationship, and then insert a crisis that destroys it, or you’ll want to show the character’s initial longing for a mate, and then dangle a promising relationship just out of his reach so that he can pursue it throughout the story.
Likewise, if your character desires freedom most, then he’ll try to avoid enslavement. So, you might begin by showing that he’s free, and then enslave him, or begin by showing that he’s enslaved, and then thrust him into a freedom-pursuing adventure.
It all has to do with what the main character desires, and what he wishes to avoid.
Ingredient #3: Escalation - There are two types of characters in every story—pebble people and putty people.
If you take a pebble and throw it against a wall, it’ll bounce off the wall unchanged. But if you throw a ball of putty against a wall hard enough, it will change shape.
Always in a story, your main character needs to be a putty person.
When you throw him into the crisis of the story, he is forever changed, and he will take whatever steps he can to try and solve his struggle—that is, to get back to his original shape (life before the crisis).
But he will fail.
Because he’ll always be a different shape at the end of the story than he was at the beginning. If he’s not, readers won’t be satisfied.
Putty people are altered.
Pebble people remain the same. They’re like set pieces. They appear onstage in the story, but they don’t change in essential ways as the story progresses. They’re the same at the ending as they were at the beginning.
And they are not very interesting.
So, exactly what kind of wall are we throwing our putty person against?
First, stop thinking of plot in terms of what happens in your story. Rather, think of it as payoff for the promises you’ve made early in the story. Plot is the journey toward transformation.
As I mentioned earlier, typically two crisis events interweave to form the multilayered stories that today’s readers expect: an external struggle that needs to be overcome, and an internal struggle that needs to be resolved. As your story progresses, then, the consequences of not solving those two struggles need to become more and more intimate, personal and devastating. If you do this, then as the stakes are raised, the two struggles will serve to drive the story forward and deepen reader engagement and interest.
Usually if a reader says she’s bored or that “nothing’s happening in the story,” she doesn’t necessarily mean that events aren’t occurring, but rather that she doesn’t see the protagonist taking natural, logical steps to try and solve his struggle. During the escalation stage of your story, let your character take steps to try and resolve the two crises (internal and external) and get back to the way things were earlier, before his world
was tipped upside down.
was tipped upside down.
Ingredient #4: Discovery - At the climax of the story, the protagonist will make a discovery that changes his life.
Typically, this discovery will be made through wit (as the character cleverly pieces together clues from earlier in the story) or grit (as the character shows extraordinary perseverance or tenacity) to overcome the crisis event (or meet the calling) he’s been given.
The internal discovery and the external resolution help reshape our putty person’s life and circumstances forever.
The protagonist’s discovery must come from a choice that she makes, not simply by chance or from a Wise Answer-Giver. While mentors might guide a character toward self-discovery, the decisions and courage that determine the outcome of the story must come from the protagonist.
In one of the paradoxes of storytelling, the reader wants to predict how the story will end (or how it will get to the end), but he wants to be wrong. So, the resolution of the story will be most satisfying when it ends in a way that is both inevitable and unexpected.