People often ask writers, “Where do you find your ideas?” But for a writer, the more important question is, “What do I do with my idea?”
If you have a “great idea,” but can’t seem to go anywhere with it, you probably have a premise rather than a complete story plan. A story has four main parts: situation, complications, climax, and resolution. You need all of them to make your story work.
The situation should involve an interesting main character with a challenging problem or goal. Even this takes development. Maybe you have a great challenge, but aren’t sure why a character would have that goal. Or maybe your situation is interesting, but doesn’t actually involve a problem.
Now we have characters with problems and goals. The story is off to a good start.
For example, I wanted to write about a brother and sister who travel with a ghost hunter TV show. The girl can see ghosts, but the boy can’t. That gave me the characters and situation, but no problem or goal. Goals come from need or desire. What did they want that could sustain a series?
Tania feels sorry for the ghosts and wants to help them, while keeping her gift a secret from everyone but her brother. Jon wants to help and protect his sister, but sometimes feels overwhelmed by the responsibility. Now we have characters with problems and goals. The story is off to a good start. (This became the four-book Haunted series.)
- Make sure your idea is specific and narrow. Focus on an individual person and situation, not a universal concept. For example, don’t try to write about “racism.” Instead, write about one character facing racism in a particular situation.
- Ask why the goal is important to the character. The longer the story, the higher stakes needed to sustain it. A short story character might want to win a contest; a novel character might need to save the world.
- Ask why this goal is difficult. Difficulties fall into categories traditionally called man versus man, man versus nature, and man versus himself. You can even combine these. Your character may hunt bank robbers (man versus man) during a dangerous storm (man versus nature) when he is afraid of lightning (man versus himself).
- Even if your main problem is external, give the character an internal flaw that contributes to the difficulty. This adds complications and also makes your character seem more real. For some internal flaws, see the seven deadly sins: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride.
- Test the idea. Change the character’s age, gender, or looks. Change the point of view, setting, external conflict, internal conflict. Choose the combination that has the most dramatic potential.
Building the Middle
If a character solves his goal easily, the story is boring. To keep tension high, you need complications.
For short stories, try the “rule of three” and have the main character try to solve the problem three times. The first two times, he fails and the situation worsens. Remember: the situation should worsen. If things stay the same, he still has a problem, but the tension is flat. If his first attempts make things worse, tension rises.For short stories, try the “rule of three” and have the main character try to solve the problem three times.
For novels, you may have even more attempts and failures. In my first Haunted book, The Ghost on the Stairs, I made sure each ghost encounter felt more dangerous. As Tania tries to get closer to the ghost in order to help her, Jon worries that she will go too far and be injured or even killed. With enough variety, you can sustain this kind of tension indefinitely (witness the ongoing battle between Harry and Voldemort in the seven-book Harry Potter series).
You can worsen the situation in several ways. The main character’s actions could make the challenge more difficult. In my children’s mystery set in ancient Egypt, The Eyes of Pharaoh, a young temple dancer searches for her missing friend. But when she asks questions at the barracks where he was a soldier, she attracts dangerous attention from his enemies.
The villain may also raise the stakes. In my Mayan historical drama, The Well of Sacrifice, the main character escapes a power-hungry high priest. He threatens to kill her entire family, forcing her to return to captivity.
Secondary characters can cause complications, too, even if they are not “bad guys.” In The Ghost on the Stairs, the kids’ mother decides to spend the day with them, forcing them to come up with creative ways to investigate the ghost while under her watchful eyes.
Finally, the main character may simply run out of time. At her first attempt, she had a week. At her second attempt, she had a day. Those two attempts have failed, and now she has only an hour! That creates tension.
For each turning point in the story, brainstorm 10 things that could happen next. Then pick the one that is the worst or most unexpected, so long as it is still believable for the story.
Can She Do It?!
Your character has faced complications through the middle of the story. Finally, at the climax, the main character must succeed or fail. Time is running out. The race is near the end. The girl is about to date another guy. The villain is starting the battle. One way or another, your complications have set up a situation where it’s now or never. However you get there, the climax will be strongest if it is truly the last chance. You lose tension if the reader believes the main character could fail this time, and simply try again tomorrow.
- Don’t rush the climax. Take the time to write the scene out in vivid detail, even if the action is happening fast. Think of how movies switch to slow motion, or use multiple shots of the same explosion, in order to give maximum impact to the climax. Use multiple senses and your main character’s thoughts and feelings to pull every bit of emotion out of the scene.
- To make the climax feel fast-paced, use mainly short sentences and short paragraphs. The reader’s eyes move more quickly down the page, giving a sense of breathless speed. (This is a useful technique for cliffhanger chapter endings as well.)
The climax ends with the resolution. You could say that the resolution finishes the climax, but it comes from the situation: it’s how the main character finally meets that original challenge.
In almost all cases the main character should resolve the situation himself. No cavalry to the rescue! Today, even romance novels rarely have the hero saving the heroine; she at least helps out. We’ve been rooting for the main character to succeed, so if someone else steals the climax away from him or her, it robs the story of tension and feels unfair.
Here’s where many beginning children’s writers fail. It’s tempting to have an adult – a parent, grandparent, or teacher, or even a fairy, ghost, or other supernatural creature – step in to save the child or tell him what to do. But kids are inspired by reading about other children who tackle and resolve problems. It helps them believe that they can meet their challenges, too. When adults take over, it shows kids as powerless and dependent on grownups. So regardless of your character’s age, let your main character control the story all the way to the end (though others may assist).
Although your main character should be responsible for the resolution, she doesn’t necessarily have to succeed. She might, instead, realize that her goals have changed. The happy ending then comes from her new understanding of her real needs and wants. Some stories may even have an unhappy ending, where the main character’s failure acts as a warning to readers. This is more common in literary novels than in genre fiction.
Resolving your Narrative
How the main character resolves the situation – whether she succeeds or fails, and what rewards or punishments she receives – will determine the theme. To help focus your theme, ask yourself:
- What am I trying to accomplish?
- Who am I trying to reach?
- Why am I writing this?
Once you know your theme, you know where the story is going and how it must be resolved. For example, a story with the theme “Love conquers all” would have a different resolution than a story with the theme “Love cannot always survive great hardship.”
The next time you have a great idea but can’t figure out what to do with it, see if you have all four parts of the story. If not, see if you can develop that idea into a complete, dramatic story or novel by expanding your idea, complications, climax or resolution, as needed. Then readers will be asking you, “Where did you get that fabulous idea?”