Monday, October 11, 2010

Plots and Characters and Settings, Oh My!

Plots and Characters and Settings, Oh My!

wizard of oz scared So, you have some general ideas for characters. Heroes, Villains, Allies, Mentors, etc. You know where and when the story takes place. You have some idea about the general flow of the story. So what is the next step?

Two of the hardest pieces of the story to create are the beginning and the ending. Right after that comes “the saggy middle”. But I’m speaking more specifically about the very beginning and endings. 


One piece of advice I’ve heard is “start the story as late as possible.” This means start your story the moment your character’s life changes irrevocably. Avoid long life stories or explanations of who they are and how they got there. In Steam Palace, the story starts when Sophia loses her job and Thomas loses use of one leg (in separate incidents). But are life-changing events, but note that they are not “The Event” that sets them upon their journey of discovery. People are tempted to start their stories right off with the “Inciting Incident” or “The Call to Adventure.”  The thing is that you need to establish your character’s core problems and/or goals before you give them their mission. In Steam Palace, Sophia faces a crisis: she’s lost her job and can no longer support her family. Thomas can no longer earn his commission as Sky Captain and is discharged. Their Calls come later when they are presented opportunities.

So you want to start off by giving your characters some fairly insurmountable or intractable problems. Show them struggling. Then shine the light of hope on them.


Think of your story as a thesis paper. If the first chapters establish the premise, the final chapters “prove” the thesis. Every chapter in between is a supporting argument. The main premise of Steam Palace is “Despite our differences, we are actually quite alike.” Sophia meets Viola, her polar opposite, but through a series of adventures, they learn that they share far more than they are different, and they learn to respect their differences. The ending is the final proof.

Also think about those original problems and goals. How were they finally surmounted or achieved? Do your characters laugh about it? And what was the cost? Sophia finally has what she wanted…but the cost was steep, almost intolerable. Thomas is whole again, but he also faced great challenges that tested him to his limits.

Saggy Middles

Ah. I tricked you. This is actually the hardest part. How do your characters get from Beginning to Ending? What is their journey? How do they do it? I hinted at it, but let me spell out a few things.

  • Acquiring knowledge, skills, objects, allies, etc. Think of a video game where you have to achieve certain things to get to the next level. Perhaps half of your book will involve your Hero’s training. The rest is putting that training to use.
  • Successes and Setbacks. Every win comes at a cost. Very little cost at first, extreme costs by the end. Think of stairs where each step is larger than the last. The stakes keep growing, as does the cost of failure. Keep making things harder.
  • Fears. Your characters must conquer their fears…but first they must face them, again in increasing order of difficulty. First the fears may be simple. Leaving home, dealing with unfamiliar settings and people. Then the fears become more personal. But at some point, your character must face their worst fears. Death. Loss of loved ones. Cancer. The Extinction of Mankind.

So as you plan your story, start thinking about the journey. Think of all the crap you can put your character through. Test your thesis. Your Villains should hold a viewpoint that is in direct opposition. In Steam Palace, the Villains believe that people who are different are inferior and should be suppressed. The believe their way is the only way. They want to crush anyone who disagrees. This is why Sophia must challenge them.

I hope that helped. Now to figure out which story I’m actually going to write for NaNoWriMo


  1. Nice post. I particularly like the idea of conquering fears.
    Len Bogarad

  2. I love how you liken stories to thesis papers and video games. It makes it clearer. Great post.

    Edge of Your Seat Romance

  3. Great post. I totally agree on beginnings and think comparing it to a thesis for the end is spot on!

  4. You are right about villains- they should pose enough of a threat to the protagonist(s)to sufficiently engage the reader.

  5. @Len: Without fear there is no tension in a story.

    @Raquel: Some video games play like a story intentionally...because story structure works. :)

    @Jay: Every good story is just an elaborate proof...but the best writers hide the thesis so we're forced to write papers on it.

    @E: That's an understatement. :)


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