Updated: Jun 25, 2021
Okay! So after reading about where ideas come from... (or coming from somewhere else to learn some non chemistry elements- welcome!) you have decided you want to do some writing but you are not exactly sure where to start. Without understanding the basic elements of fiction, the building blocks of story, you can’t really go anywhere. So that’s where we are heading next! So belly up to bar (as my dance teacher liked to say). Let’s go!
There is some argument in the writing world about how many basic elements there actually are. I prefer to think of them as two groups of three. The first group contains the basics. Without these you don’t have a story, you just have a bunch of jumbled words on the page. And the second group makes your story unique and impactful. Let’s call the first group the ‘Big W’s’ and the second group the ‘Big Ponderings’ just for fun!
The Big W’s
The Big W’s are just like the ‘W’ questions you learned about in school when you were analyzing a story in English class. They are the WHO, WHAT, and WHERE of your story. Most writers are more comfortable with either the ‘who’ or the ‘what’, but all three have to work together to create the magic. So let’s look at them a little more closely!
WHO- Your Character(s)
Did you catch that? I put the ‘s’ in the parentheses for a reason. While it isn’t often, you can have a story with just one character, BUT it is much more likely that you will want multiple characters so they can interact with one another. Also, your story will probably have one main character who you might remember from English class is your protagonist. Sometimes people call the protagonist the hero of the story, but I shy away from this description because your protagonist doesn’t have to be some shiny, wonderful person. In fact, that can become really boring really fast.
Many people do entire character interviews to find out exactly who their character is… down to their favorite type of ice cream. And while these can be useful, there are two things that you must know about your character to make them impactful. Your character must have a want and a need. And no, I don’t mean one thing. You need two distinct things to make your character whole.
I like to think of the need as something internal. Something that the character themselves probably don’t even know that they need. These are subconscious things that the person must deal with in order to be truly victorious at the end of their story. Whether they obtain this need will decide if they have a positive or negative character arc (or in other words, do they grow into a better or worse person by the end of the story in relation to where they started).
So what could these needs be? Remember how we have the basic needs of water, food, shelter, and love? Yeah, those all count as acceptable needs for your character to go after, but you can also expand on the ‘love’ one to include other emotional needs. Maybe your character has to accept the abandonment of them as a child by their father so that they can form solid relationships and stop pushing everyone away. Or maybe they need to accept their introverted nature, so they can stop thinking life would be better if they were someone different and find things they actually enjoy. Basically, your character has some internal work to do, and if they do it well over the course of your story, they will achieve a more fulfilled life.
The want is more superficial. By that I don’t mean that isn’t something important, or something your character is morally wrong for going after, but it isn’t a big psychological task like the need. This is something your character can seek during your story. Maybe your detective wants to catch the criminal, maybe the writer wants to quit her job to write full time, maybe the magician wants to learn a spell so they can become the most powerful sorcerer in the world (probably a negative character arc, just saying). The key is that they want something! This will drive them forward into the story. If they don’t want anything, they will have no reason to get off their couch. And a character sitting on their couch will likely be a very boring story.
There is so much more to talk about character and all these elements! I will do a separate post for each. But for now, make sure your characters have a strong need and a strong want and you will be on a great start to making them real and significant.
WHAT- The Plot
Okay, I’ll be honest. I am much more of a plot lover than a character writer. I use the plot to learn about my characters while other people do it the other way around. Either works as long as you know you have to flesh out both.
So what is plot? The plot is what you summarized in English class. It’s what you answer then people ask, “what’s that about?” There are many people who look down at plot, they view it as lesser than character, which is a mistake as the previous example shows. People don’t ask “who’s in that” unless it’s a movie and they mean the actress and not the character. They ask what it is about and that’s because we are interested in the things that happen to a character or that they make happens do to their choices.
There are many plots, which I will get into in a later article, but I like to boil it all down to problems. Remember your character and how they had a want? Now, they have to have a complication. No one wants to read a story where the sorcerer wants the most powerful spell, gets the most powerful spell, and then lives happily ever after. BORING! No. They want the sorcerer to face some problems along the way. So let’s call our sorcerer Hank. Hank’s want is to become the most powerful sorcerer in the world. So he gets off his couch and heads out into the world. Enter Hank’s first problem- where should he go to start his search? Let’s say he has decided that he heard about a book in the magician’s library that talks about the spell in great detail, so he decides that’s the best place to go.
Cool beans. Our protagonist is off and running. But we, as writers, are a bunch of meanies to our characters (yes, even the ones we like) so we can’t let Hank have too much of a good time. Maybe he goes to take his flying broom, but it seems to be mysteriously missing so he is forced to take public transportation. While on that public transportation, he sits down next to someone who won’t stop talking about their three-headed dog (don’t you hate that?). Finally, Hank arrives at the library and he’s feeling lucky because the book is available. He excitedly heads to the book, opens it up, feeling deep down that he is so much closer to fulfilling his desires and... someone has ripped out the pages containing the information about the spell! WHAT? Sorry, Hank. New problem. What are you going to do about it?
And that, my friends, is plot. Maybe the person who ripped out the pages is an arch rival also seeking what Hank wants (also known as an antagonist) but really that person is just a human form of another problem. Give your character a goal. Then make it nearly impossible to get to that goal and you nearly have a story. Nearly, but not quite. You still need the final W!
WHERE- The Setting
Your character must have a place to be doing all of this great problem solving. This makes your story complete. Often writers will have lovely characters doing lovely things in vacuums. It’s like the characters are wandering around in a vast emptiness, and while that can be cool when intentional... it’s not cool when it’s just because the author hasn’t thought about setting.
Setting is powerful. Don’t believe me? Think about any fantasy novel ever and you will have images of setting. Harry Potter went to Hogwarts a setting with floating candles, magically filling tables, twisting staircases, and moving photographs. Bilbo walked out of his round door, in his hill house, to start his adventure. The North in the Game of Thrones looks vastly different from the south, as different as their people tend to act and think. Setting can’t be something you forget about. In fact, it is very much like a character all on its own.
The setting can also create problems for both you and your character. Remember Hank? Well, at first I was going to have his tires slashed. But then I thought about what world Hank was living in. I had to make a decision. Was Hank living in a magical realism world like Harry Potter, where it is both in our world and separate from it? Or was he living in a completely different dimension? I decided he wouldn’t live in a place with cars, so I needed a new form of transportation, along with a fresh problem. Now the flying broom wasn’t the best solution to this—your first idea often isn’t, because it’s been done time and time again. How else could wizards travel? Something to think about in relation to your setting. Or what if your character was afraid of heights, so broom flying was out? What else could he use in his world to get to where he needed to go?
I hope you can see how the Big W’s all work together to create your story. It is hard to separate them into distinct pieces when you are doing things right, but it’s easy to see when a story isn’t including one of them. To write stories, you must master these three elements, and then you have to go on to the ‘Big Ponderings’ to take the three W’s to their next level.
Make sure to check out my post all about The Big Ponderings- Point of View, Theme, and Style! Until then...