Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Four Questions

Rob Parnell

I bought some software last night to help us constructing stories.

In the help file I found a useful note on the four questions we need to ask ourselves about a story before we start writing. These questions help clarify our idea and also let us know whether we have a story that is compelling enough to start work on.

Many ideas falter at this stage - which can useful because doubt can alert you to the weaknesses in an idea and to stop you from pursuing a story that may lose impetus half way through.

We all know there's nothing worse than starting a story, then running out of steam when it seems to go nowhere or end up in a hole. Getting stuck during the writing of a story is no fun at all.

However, answering the following questions can also help you solidify an idea into a story worth telling.

Question One: Who is your main character?

Often we may be tempted to think that it's a combination of characters that make a story interesting. True - but usually not from the reader's point of view.

Readers like to identify with just one person - usually the one with the most to lose in the story.

You need to be able to personalize your story and show it from a protagonist's perspective.

And don't think you can have a story to which you can bolt on any old characters. It doesn't work that way.

Effective fiction is character driven. You need to have a person in mind - a fictional type at least - and get to know them well. See this as your first task in any story writing pursuit.

Character first. Who are they? What do they want? What do they look like? Where do they live? What do they do? What is important to them?

Think through all of these aspects before you ponder anything else.

Question Two: What is he/she trying to accomplish?

For years now I've been saying that it is 'agenda' that defines a character's purpose and effectiveness in a story.

A fictional personality in a story must want something - whether that be a new car, a girl, to save his family, to cure cancer, anything, as long as it is an easily identifiable goal, and something a reader can identify with.

Characters who do not have goals - even nebulous and seemingly inconsequential aspirations - are not interesting to read about.

If you've ever started reading a story and lost interest it's usually because either you don't care about the main character's agenda - or you haven't been able to identify it.

Hence, when answering this question, make sure you come up with something compelling to the character, and make a decision to weave the opening of your story in such a way that the reader will be aware of the primary motivation of the protagonist within the first page - at least.

And, when editing, try to place your hero in the act of being in their world AND demonstrating their agenda in the very first paragraph.

Question Three: Who is trying to stop him/her?

As you will know - at least from having it repeated to you often - there is no drama (that is, no compelling reason to be captivated by a story) if there is no conflict. And in order to have conflict you need characters' agendas to be at odds with each other.

There may be a hundred and one obstacles to a hero's journey throughout a story but the easiest and best way to consolidate those obstacles is to personify them into an antagonist.

Yep, the bad guy. Now, this character doesn't have to a serial killer or an evil scientist - but he/she does need to be a serious threat to the main character's agenda.

There's little point to a story where the protagonist gets what they want easily and with no significant hurdles to jump.

We all know this instinctively - though it may seem formulaic to you to simply insert a bad guy because Rob says it's a good idea...

However, research has shown that stories are way more effective, entertaining and ultimately satisfying to readers if there is someone the protagonist must defeat in order to win his/her prize.

This is true in any genre, whether the antagonist is a natural disaster, a rival lover, or even a set of unhelpful circumstances.

Think hard about this question because the more compelling the antagonist's agenda, the harder the hero will need to work, grow or change to achieve his/her goals.

Question Four: What happens when he/she fails?

This question is crucial because it defines your story idea. If there are no consequences to a character's actions and reactions, then there is no 'point' to a story. Again, we know this instinctively, yet often we may fail to grasp its fundamental importance.

In the most blatant scenarios, the death of characters close to the protagonist are the most dreaded consequence. The death of the hero too, is an obvious bad thing!

It could be that smaller, less catastrophic events may be significant to your story. The loss of a lover, failing an exam, or losing a treasured possession. Whatever your frame of reference is not the issue.

The real issue is that within the context of your story, the consequences of your hero's failure should be monumental to your main character.

And that the attainment of your hero's goals in the face of adversity - the more difficult the better - is at the heart of good storytelling.

I hope this article helps you when thinking through your next story idea.

It's certainly helped us already!

Keep Writing!

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