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Three steps to a breakout story

Have you ever finished reading a novel only to find yourself standing in awe of the author’s ability to craft a story and portray the characters? Have you found yourself wondering how on earth the author ever managed to work so many great twists and turns, complications and subplots into the story, without having any of it feel extraneous? Have you ever despaired of ever being able to write that well yourself?

Yes? Good. That means you’re at least a savvy enough writer to recognize what you ought to be doing, even if you don’t quite know how to do it yet. That gives you a goal (hey, we need goals as much as our characters do). Speaking of characters and goals, I’m going to help you figure out how to do it by giving you three steps for choosing great goals for your characters that will in turn help you achieve your goals in crafting a stellar story.

1. Pick a compelling goal

Goals matter. And in choosing a goal, you have a bit of a Goldilocks problem in finding a story goal that’s “just right.” One that is significant enough to motivate your protagonist, but isn’t so high-stakes as to be implausible. A babysitter finding herself in a plot where it’s up to her to save the President’s life would challenge all but the most credulous readers. On the flip side, nobody’s going to care about your book if the babysitter’s goal is simply to choose what color nail polish goes best with her prom dress.

Where things go wrong: Most writers don’t err by setting the stakes too low. We hear some variant on “when in doubt, raise the stakes” so often that I think most people know not to do that. Where writers often fail is in picking a high-stakes goal that is only high-stakes externally to the character. The stakes matter to the world at large (i.e., it really is a big deal if someone’s gunning for the President), but the protagonist doesn’t matter to the stakes. The key pitfall is failing to answer the question “why this protagonist?” If you want to have a babysitter save the President’s life, that’s fine, but make sure you have a damn good answer to the question of why it’s her job to do it.

2. Show that the goal is worthy

It isn’t enough for the protagonist to be the only one who can achieve the goal. You may have convinced your protagonist that she’s the only one who can save the cat (or the President), but you still need to prove to the reader that this goal is worth an entire novel.

Where things go wrong: Even the most compelling of external goals can fall flat if you don’t show that the goal matters to the protagonist. At the point where the protagonist is contemplating the goal and whether she should do anything about it, you need to portray and contrast two possible views of the world: one in which the goal is accomplished, and one in which it is not. The babysitter has to see (and we have to see her seeing) how her life would be better in one scenario and worse in the other. Not only must the babysitter matter to the goal of saving the President, it has to matter to her that the President is saved.

3. Go after the goal

Steps 1 and 2 are critical, but only because they set the stage. Step 3 is where all the fun is, where the majority of your storyline takes place, as the protagonist pursues her goal. Here, you want to make use of every piece of advice you’ve ever read about keeping conflict in every scene, using every scene to advance the story, and so forth. But that’s not enough. If your goal is to write a breakout novel at the level of the novels that have knocked your socks off, just following that kind of advice isn’t going to do it.

To knock your readers’ socks off, you have to follow all that advice while keeping everything focused on the protagonist. That doesn’t mean keeping her in every scene. It means giving the protagonist a set of increasingly difficult challenges on the path towards the goal. The moment the Babysitter decides it’s up to her to save the President, the next thing on her mind had better be “ok, what’s the first thing I have to do?” Maybe she needs information. Maybe she needs access to some kind of tools (Babysitter with a sniper rifle!) or resources. Maybe she needs to go somewhere else. The specifics don’t matter, so long as you can find an immediate goal that is in service to her ultimate goal. Then you need another challenge, and another and another.

Where things go wrong: Even the most carefully crafted sequence of challenges and obstacles can end up feeling as boring and downright formulaic as National Treasure if they are all fundamentally external to the protagonist. To really elevate your novel to breakout status (or at least to take some steps in that direction) you need to relate the protagonist’s progress towards the goal to her own character arc.

That is, she must experience some failures along the way, failures caused by her own shortcomings. But let her grow as a person through those experiences, and let that growth give her the keys to achieving her ultimate goal. It’s all well and good for a character to need to acquire some sort of MacGuffin as well, but to be really satisfying, you need personal growth to play a part too. Just like the Harry Potter from Philosopher’s Stone could never have defeated Voldemort while the Harry Potter from Deathly Hallows could, your babysitter needs to experience personal growth that in some manner enables her to save the President.

Make it personal

If you were savvy enough to answer “yes” to the question at the beginning of this article, chances are you’ve noticed the theme behind all three of these steps. At every opportunity, make it personal, in goals, in stakes, and in growth. Don’t just pick compelling goals, make them compelling personal goals. Show us why the babysitter has to be the one to save the President, and also why saving the President matters to her. Then, whenever possible, make the turning points in the story relate to the babysitter’s growth as a person.

That’s it. Three steps to a breakout story, all boiled down to one piece of advice: make it personal. We stand in awe of writers better than ourselves, but there’s no impenetrable magic about what they do. When it comes to writing a breakout story, you can conquer your personal goals by helping your protagonists conquer theirs.

May 17, 2010 22:54 UTC

Tags: character, goals, stakes, character arc, MacGuffin

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Carpe Diem!

Although the classic Latin phrase Carpe Diem has spawned many derivative jokes, the core meaning of this cliche—seize the day—is not only good advice for success in life, it’s also good advice for novelists who want to develop strong characters.

Case in point: I recently worked on a book where the MacGuffin had gone missing, through assumedly nefarious doings by unknown antagonists. That’s a fine setup; the MacGuffin was something the main character cared deeply about, and it served as credible stakes for inciting the main character to action.

The author, rightly, aimed to create a situation where this main character (let’s call her Meredith for clarity’s sake), would go to great lengths to recover the MacGuffin and win the day. However, the author wanted (also rightly) to make Meredith an interesting, multi-dimensional character.

This is where things went wrong.

You see, the author saddled Meredith with a bad relationship, a marriage to an unfeeling, unsympathetic, and controlling husband. Roger, we’ll call him, didn’t give one thin damn about the MacGuffin, didn’t care at all for the anxiety that Meredith was suffering because her precious MacGuffin was lost, and constantly belittled Meredith’s ideas and strategies for how she might get the MacGuffin back.

This is not in itself a bad character development strategy. It offers the potential for character growth, for showing Meredith coming into her own as she chases down that MacGuffin no matter what. It allows an opportunity for readers to root for her, as we watch her growing awareness of her own power and self-determination as a human being.

But the author attempted to create a situation where Meredith had no one to help her but herself, by constantly leaving avenues of investigation un-pursued, possible actions un-taken. He didn’t want to take the time to write the scenes showing her doing those things and having them fail, so he simply left them un-pursued.

The reason for this passivity was always that Meredith was afraid of what Roger (or frankly, anyone else in the novel) might think of her. Was she being silly, for wanting this MacGuffin back so much? Would the cops laugh at her if she called them for help? Did she dare bother the neighbors to ask if they had seen anyone strange at her house?

In every case, the author made poor Meredith opt for preserving other people’s opinions of her (which couldn’t have been that great to begin with) rather than pursuing the goal she really wanted. The author, in attempting to force Meredith into a situation where she had to take control, instead showed that Meredith was passive and weak beyond all possible expectation, blowing with the changing winds of other people’s attitudes.

I’m sure he didn’t mean to, but that’s what he showed.

It would be one thing if she was like that in the first few chapters, but then got over it and started doing something. I kept waiting for Meredith to tell someone—anyone!—to stuff it and get out of her way. But she never did.

Poor, poor Meredith, she never did a darned thing to recover her MacGuffin. So when the MacGuffin more or less fell back into her lap at the end of the book (gotta have that happy ending, you know!), I wasn’t emotionally moved at all. After all, Meredith hadn’t done anything to deserve getting it back. She was just as sad and pathetic as she had been on page one.

It didn’t make for good characterization, nor did it make for a satisfying story.

July 10, 2009 17:07 UTC

Tags: character, carpe diem, seize the day, bad relationship, passivity, MacGuffin, stakes, multi-dimensional

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