Saturday, April 3, 2010


Les Edgerton

The first thing any story needs is a protagonist who wants something. A goal. And the goal must be something the average reader can relate to and see as worthwhile. And the best goals are almost always intrinsic and not material. To merely desire wealth, for instance, doesn't qualify as a good story goal, unless there is an underlying motive such as acquiring wealth will bring the protagonist respect (in his or her mind). Acquiring wealth is the surface goal; gaining respect is the story-worthy goal. Wealth, in a situation like this, isn't the real goal; respect is. One of the best stories I've ever read, The Suicide’s Wife, by David Madden, was based on a simple premise. The protagonist, a middle-aged woman, wanted one thing. Her driver's license. She was trapped in a marriage that had imprisoned her and when her husband committed suicide, obtaining her driver's license represented immense freedom to her. She went through all kinds of trials and setbacks to gain that license and the resulting story was riveting.

Some of the best story goals are the desire of the protagonist to change something in his or her life. A relationship that isn't working, for instance. The lack of a relationship could be another one.

Always start your main character off in trouble. This doesn't mean melodramatic trouble like burglars breaking in, armed robbers shoving a gun in his or her face, nuclear war or any of that stuff. More drama is enacted at the breakfast table of an ordinary family each morning than is in ten pot-boilers, as Janet Burroway tells us. The one thing you should avoid in all of your stories are happy characters with perfect lives. Let's say you have a character named Biff. Biff goes through high school with a 4.0 average, is captain of the football and debate teams, gets a full scholarship to Harvard, graduates magna cum laude, lands a job on Wall Street where he becomes president of the firm, meets Diane who's had a similar background and they marry, raising three perfect children and they die in each other's arms in their sleep at the ripe old age of ninety-three, just after they've been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for the poetry they've teamed up to write. Nice story if you happen to be Biff or Diane or one of their friends or relatives, but for a reader? Yuch! Borrr-ring! Now, make Biff black and Diane white and their families don’t like it and you've got a story (Othello)! Or Make Diane's parents hate Biff (Romeo & Juliet). Again, you've got a story.

The next thing you need to do in your story is once you've got your character up a tree (trouble), begin to throw rocks (roadblocks that prevent him from attaining the goal) at him or her. At this point, you've got a character who begins in some sort of trouble (in a relationship, say), has a goal the reader can identify with (fix the relationship, say), and now you've got to make it increasingly harder to achieve the goal. Each time you throw a rock at him or her, it has to be a bigger rock thrown harder than the last one. Until the last rock, which is the biggest and has the most velocity of all, and by dint of his or her own means, he or she ducks the rock and achieves the goal. Or doesn't achieve it but by the process learns something about him- or herself. That's all any story is. There's no big mystery, believe me. You can break any worthwhile story down exactly like that.

The other requirement of contemporary fiction is to begin your story as close to the end as possible. In media res, as they say. The most common fault of beginning writers is to begin their story with too much backstory. This results from not trusting the reader's intelligence. Most first drafts, even from seasoned writers, contain way too much preamble. I like to refer to it as "the writer clearing his or her throat." It's always the first thing that needs cut. This is just to warn you.

Look at good jokes. Jokes are basically short stories. A traveling salesman goes up to this farmer's house... You don't have to tell the audience what kind of a man he is, what his childhood was like, what caused him to go to the farmer's house in the first place...none of that stuff. A traveling salesman goes up to this farmer's house tells the audience everything they need to know about him, right? Such a joke beginning makes use of the conventions of jokes - every listener to such a joke assumes certain things about the man. Stories have the same conventions. By placing a particular character in a certain situation tells the reader everything he or she needs to know - you don't have to include all the steps leading up to the situation. When the farmer answered the door, the salesman said, "Hi. I just ran out of gas. Can I spend the night here?" This is the middle of the joke. Jokes, like stories, have beginnings, middles and ends. As in stories, we don't explain why he's asking this, we just show the action. Then, in the joke, just as in a story, it takes a turn, makes a twist in what the listener (reader) was expecting. "Sure," the farmer said. "You can spend the night here...but you'll have to sleep with my son." Here the joke (story) makes a turn (roadblock to the goal) the listener (reader) wasn't expecting. The protagonist has begun in trouble (out of gas) and tried to reach his goal (a place to spend the night), but the farmer has just thrown a rock at him - instead of the expected response - yes, but you'll have to spend the night with my daughters - he's told he can stay but has to sleep with the farmer's son. Whoa. This is where you grab the listener's (reader's) attention firmly. Now what? "Damn!" the salesman says, "I must be in the wrong joke!" With that ending, the protagonist didn't achieve his intended goal, but he achieved a similar goal (to spend the night) and we see he learned something about himself in the process. He found he had a sense of humor. The joke contains an epiphany for the protagonist and the reader gets a payoff as well. And this is basically all that stories are about.

This is where all stories spring from. They began around cavemen's campfires, with someone with the gift of cave-gab talking about the day's sabre-tooth tiger hunt or telling something funny or interesting that happened to him or someone else in the tribe...and we're still doing pretty much the same thing today.

This is basic stuff that most of us know, but sometimes it's a good idea to go back and review the basics. Sometimes, we get caught up in all we read and hear about writing and forget that there are only two things necessary for a good story--that it be interesting and that it be clear. Achieve that and you're on your way!


Mary said...

You make it sound so EASY, Les!!! Seriously, though, this is a great post. In life, I try my hardest to avoid conflict. I squirm at the mere hint of it which makes it hard for me when I'm writing. I always want to fix things instead of throwing more rocks at my lead. I'm going out now to gather a big pile of 'em.Thanks for the reminder.

Les Edgerton said...

That's exactly right, Mary. In "real life" we do everything in our power to avoid trouble, but in fiction, we have to go against our nature and what we've learned in life for self-preservation and get our protagonist in as much trouble at every turn that we possibly can. I see it over and over, where writers have their protagonist in places that are perfect to throw something at him or her... and don't. Drives me nuts! A character shouldn't even get simple directions to a place down the street without the bum he stops, saying, "I look like the Chamber of Commerce, Jack?"

Glynis Peters said...

You say it is basic stuff, Les. I think it is important and informative. Thank you.

Shannon O'Donnell said...

So does this mean it's good that Scott starts out, literally, up a tree?! Ha ha. :-)

Mary is right. As I read Hooked, I keep thinking the same thing - you make it sound easy. But it's so dang difficult to do well!

Roland D. Yeomans said...

Always start with your protagonist in trouble is great advise, Les. Your definition of trouble is wise as well. Everyone you pass on the street is having a harder time than they appear. Thanks for dropping by my blog tonight, Roland