I recently got a question from an aspiring author. She had a question many of us have when we are trying to complete a novel:
"I know the beginning, and I have some of it written; and I know the end of the book. It's the getting from here to there that I'm having trouble with."
She told me she knew her characters inside and out, she knew what they'd do in any given situation, and the story idea was compelling, but she was stuck!
How many times have we run up against this dilemma? We've got an idea of whose story we're telling and about their happy ending, but what happens to them along the way? What fills up the middle 2/3 of the book?
And....I think I have an answer. Ta da~Here are my thoughts:
First off, we need to know what our character wants. If, like the author said, she knew that character inside and out, she would know what s/he wanted more than anything. The thing the main character wants more than anything IS the story. Desire drives every good story.
Second, we need to discover what stands between the main character and her/his desire or goal. Make a huge list. Make the list of possible obstacles exhaustive. Delve into the preposterous. Go for the obvious, and then go beyond. Ask yourself, "What's the worst thing that could happen to my main character?" and then ratchet it up.
Once you have that list, whittle it down to (about) your top 10 favorite obstacles. Sometimes the more unexpected the better. Surprise the reader! We read to be surprised, and surprise delights us and keeps us turning pages.
Then, imagine that each one of these becomes a scene in that middle 2/3 of the book. Figure out all the ins and outs of what could happen to the character when that obstacle arises. Make things really tough on the character. Imagine what all the possible range of emotions would be for the character when the obstacle arises. That's the reaction. Then, get the character moving toward overcoming it. Show how the character obliterates the obstacle. This gives the readers a chance to cheer. Then, hit us with the next obstacle--and end the scene with a cliffhanger.
Line up the obstacles in a crescendo. Arrange and rearrange them until the obstacles are paced just right. Then plop them down. Write the scenes, flesh them out. In each scene, as the character encounters and overcomes each obstacle, the ideal is if that obstacle serves to "reveal character"--to give the readers a further glimpse into what that hero is like on the inside. So...when you're choosing obstacles from your exhaustive list of possibilities, try to make the obstacles different enough that they'll expose a different facet of the hero/ine's character.
The final obstacle should be the worst. It should propel the main character into the crisis and the final showdown that leads to the triumphant ending.
It's okay to have lighthearted things along the way, but conflict reveals character, and drives plot, which is character. Character is plot.
Right now I have three or four characters in my brain. They are barely on paper, just a page or two, and I'm trying to decide which one needs to have his/her story told next. I keep thinking of it this way: I know this character. This character has a story, and it HAS to be his story. With the traits he has, the story really only has one possible plot. This is HIS story.
I'm not sure that makes sense. Maybe not. But I know what I mean, and I think I know what will happen to millionaire gone bust Ivan Potts (this oddball character in my head who keeps bothering me) when he makes this life-changing decision to take his friend Nils Jacoby up on his offer to go to England and start over after his (latest) bankruptcy. Ivan's story needs to be told soon. What's his happy ending? I think I know--and of course it involves finding love--and now I have to discover out what stands between him and his happily ever after.
When considering what obstacles to throw at the story people, it helps to really know them. Take their character traits into consideration. What do they love, hate, fear? These emotions are huge clues for knowing what to throw into their paths.
So. That's long enough for now.
I'm boiling all of this down from several books I've studied, conferences I've been to, etc. I think most of it probably comes from James Scott Bell and James N. Frey, which I've mentioned umpteen times on this blog. So, check those out for a more comprehensive study of the topic.
Speaking of Cracker Jack... mmm. I love that stuff. I love the popcorn, totally love the caramely crispiness of it, how it crackles in my mouth and tastes kind of burned and yet heavenly. However, the truly magical part of Cracker Jack is....
NO! Not the prize inside. (They've gotten disappointingly cheap. A foldy face of Thomas Jefferson? Uh, maybe not very exciting as a "prize." Whatever happened to the mini magnifying glasses, or even a butterfly stick-on tattoo? Sigh. Things just aren't like the good old days of a mood ring.)
It's the peanuts. Mmm. The total immersion of each peanut half in the caramely crispiness of the coating. Now that's a thing for a heroine (me) to desire. Are we all the heroes of our own story? Me, I'm the heroine of my tale--that of a woman on a lifelong quest to eat as much candy as possible...what could possibly stand in my way?