Stephen King says he starts his novels with a “What if?” question. What if a woman and child are trapped in a car by a rabid dog? What if a family pet buried in a Pet Semetary came back to life? What if a young girl could start fires with her mind?
I have also heard many other bestselling novelist such as Jodi Picoult, Janet Evanovich and Nicolas Evans lay claim to the same thing.
And I have heard others say they just saw an image in their mind, or had a persistent sentence knocking on the inside of their brains, and they just followed that to where it lead them.
And while their insight and tutelage is invaluable, when I was a budding writer it left me with another question.
It’s all good and fine to have a starting point. In fact a starting point is imperative. But in answering the question of “What next?” you will lift your novel from “What if?” to “Howzat!”
So in answer to the “What next?” question, I defined the five essential elements of any good story, whether it’s a novel, a short story, a play or a screenplay. Use these five elements to plan your story and you’re guaranteed to write a bestseller everytime.
Step One: Desire
It is essential that your main character want something. Even if it’s only a glass of water, they must have an “object of desire” to pursue. It can be anything from a way of escaping their predicament, or a way to bring their world back into balance, but the key is that your main character must want something. Without that you will not have a story.
This “desire line” is the golden thread that will run through your story.
For example, in a love story, the object of desire is the beloved. In a story of illness, the object of desire may be anything from a medical specialist who can treat the patient, to a specific medicine guaranteed to cure. In a failing marriage, the object of desire could be the best divorce lawyer in town, or an apartment of their own. It’s your choice and will be dictated by the type of story you are writing.
Step Two: Conflict or Opposition
You will undoubtedly know that nothing ever moves forward in story except through conflict. So once your main character knows what they want, there has to be something or someone around to stop them. And the most powerful person, or thing, to oppose the main character is the one who can put the most pressure on them and force them to change.
It’s critical to remember this: the strength of any story is directly related to the strength of the opponent. If it’s easy for the main character to reach their goal, then where’s the challenge? Where’s the drama? Where’s the struggle for growth and change?
The Harry Potter novels kept us on the edge of our seats for seven books and ten years because of the promise of a showdown between Harry and Lord Voldemort. The success of Star Wars hinged on the multilayered battle between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker. The Bourne series enthrals us because it’s one man against the CIA.
In our earlier examples, the opponent in the love story is always the lover. If boy meets girl and they get together and live happily ever after, where is the story? There isn’t one! So the lover must resist in some way. In the case of the illness, the main opponent could be a government department that is withholding approval for a drug that will cure you, or it could be a lack of funds to travel overseas to see that one specialist who can treat you. And in the failing marriage, the opponent would be the other marriage partner, who is either trying to send you broke or stopping you from moving out.
Really take the time to explore your opponent. They can often be the most interesting character in the story!
Step Three: Moral Dilemma
The conflict must build so that your main character is forced into a corner, where they must make a decision that challenges their values.
There is only one question you need to ask yourself at this stage, and that is, “how can I push my main character into a place where they feel as though they are stuck between a rock and a hard place?” The decision they make here must be a true test of their core values, and whatever decision they make needs to tip them into the most intense conflict of the story, where they battle the opponent in a do-or-die climax to your story.
For example, in the love story, your character may be forced to choose between love and security, or love and family, as they enter new territory in the relationship stakes. In the illness story, your character may need to choose between health and authority, or health and pride, if they are forced to ask for charity to finance their overseas trip. And in the case of the divorced couple, your main character may be forced to choose between freedom and control, or financial security and love, depending on the scenario you choose.
One way or the other, your character has to make a choice and this choice sends your story into its most intense conflict.
Step Four: The Battle or Climax
You are now entering the most intense conflict of the story and the action here must take place between your main character and the main opponent. This is the classic “fight” scene, or where the great revelation comes out, where you can otherwise surprise or shock your readers. Push it out there! Allow whatever comes out to come out onto the page. Remember you are just exploring your story here. If it goes too far you can pull it back in the writing or the editing. Just remember that the most powerful climax will be one that brings about absolute and irreversible change.
It’s a good idea to explore your character’s highs and lows at this time. By this I mean look at how they can behave really badly, as we often do when we are pushed into a corner. Does your character come out swinging, or do they submit and surrender? Neither answer is wrong or right. It will depend entirely on your story.
Step Five: Resolution
Every good story asks a question at the beginning. Whether it’s a Stephen King “What if?” question, or something entirely different, it’s imperative that you answer the question here. How can you show your character having learned their lesson? How are they seeing themselves clearly for the first time? What impact does that have on those around them? What is the “solution” to your story?
I recommend not spending too much time planning this final step, as it almost always simply comes out in the writing. Stories that you are meant to write have a way of just coming out the way they need to, and too much planning of the ending will make it seem contrived.
So those are our five simple steps to great fiction. Have a character who wants something, add something or someone who tries to stop them, put them in an impossible situation, watch them fight their way out and see what they learn in the process!