Friday, February 17, 2012

Write a Strong Plot: Be Cruel to Your Characters

For a strong plot, you need plenty of dramatic action. (This doesn't necessarily mean fights and car chases. The drama can come from interpersonal relationships or even a person's own thoughts. But dramatic things should happen.) But it's not enough just to have dramatic things happening. It's not just What but also Who.

Your main character needs to be able to overcome the challenge you set for him – but just barely. We don't want to watch superheroes fight weaklings. We want to watch superheroes fight supervillains – or even better, weaklings fight supervillains, and barely win, through courage and ingenuity that overcome the stronger foe.

Conflict comes from the interaction between character and plot. You can create conflict by setting up situations which force a person to confront their fears. If someone is afraid of heights, make them go someplace high. If they're afraid of taking responsibility, force them to be in charge.

You can also create conflict by setting up situations which oppose a person’s desires. If they crave safety, put them in danger. But if they crave danger, keep them out of it.

In The Well of Sacrifice, Eveningstar never dreams of being a leader or a rebel. But when her family, the government, and even the gods fail to stop the evil high priest, she's forced to act. In the Haunted series, Jon would like to be an ordinary kid and stay out of trouble. But his sister is determined to help ghosts without letting the grown-ups know what she and Jon are doing, and is constantly getting him into trouble. The reluctant hero is a staple of books and movies because it's fun to watch someone forced into a heroic role when they don't want it. (Think of Harrison Ford as Han Solo.)

Even with nonfiction, you can create tension by focusing on the challenges that make a person's accomplishments more impressive. In my book Jesse Owens: Young Record Breaker, written under the name M.M. Eboch, I made this incredible athlete’s story more powerful by focusing on all the things he had to overcome – childhood health problems, poverty, a poor education. In Milton Hershey: Young Chocolatier (also written as M.M. Eboch) the story of the man who founded Hershey's chocolate is more dramatic because he started with little business experience, and had an unfortunate habit of trusting his overzealous father.

Exercise:  Ask yourself these questions. They may lead to new story ideas, or you can use them to further develop characters in your current work.

What are you afraid of?

What's the hardest thing you have had to do or overcome?

What's the hardest thing you've done by choice?

Ask other people the same questions, for more ideas.

4 comments:

  1. I am afraid of heights and tight spaces (crowded elevators). Spiders - big hairy ones. Hardest thing...death of a loved one. Getting wiped out in a flood - that sort of sucked. Done by choice - denounced a toxic relative.

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  2. Those are good ones, Karen. Many people will identify with heights, tight spaces (when I lived in New York City, I was sometimes late to work because I refused to get in a packed elevator), spiders and the death of a loved one.

    Getting wiped out in a flood is more unusual, and that makes it good story potential too. The nice thing about being a writer is that when awful things happen, at least it's research!

    Finally, good for you for denouncing a toxic relative. I bet those emotions -- leading up to it, the experience, and the aftermath -- could be applied to other situations as well.

    Thanks for sharing!

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  4. Excellent advice. Asking myself right now!

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