Today, we ask three questions. The right answers have the power to change your writing life:
1. What does your main character want more than anything else in the world?
2. What is he or she willing to do to get it?
3. What stands in the way?
Sculptors often construct a wire frame called an armature on which to build and shape their work. The three questions above provide the armature for your novel–the basic structure.
If you’re one of those people who likes automotive analogies (you know who your are) think of these three questions as your novel’s drive train; the engine, the transmission, the differential. Or the gas and air and fire trapped in those cyllinders. If I knew anything about cars, I could probably extend this already strained metaphor to the breaking point–but you get my drift.
Why are these three questions so important? Without a main character who has a strong need or desire, there will be nothing to drive your story. Your character will plop in front of the tube and snarf cheetos for twenty chapters.
Many people think and dream about some goal or some need, but that’s all the farther it goes. To drive a novel, your character has to act on this need.
No story is complete without an opposing force, a bad person, an antagonist. Your main character has to act on his or her own, not be rescued by some convenient outside force. Especially if that force is mounted on a big white horse.
I’ve always thought that the success of the Dirty Harry movies hinged on the awfulness of the crooks he encountered. Harry’s pursuit of these sadistic freaks allowed the reader to empathize with his somewhat violent approach to law enforcemtn. Wow, that dude deserves to face Dirty Harry’s wrath.
These movies aren’t for everyone, that’s certain, but for lovers of the genre, we have the classic pull between good and evil. So our character has something big standing between him and his goal. The more significant that obstacle is, the better your novel will be.
Time to take a test. (Relax, you get to grade it yourself.)
Put your feet up on your desk, take a taste of whatever you’re drinking these days, close your eyes and think about these three questions.
Go ahead, do it. Right now.
Now grade yourself on how easy or difficult it was to answer those questions.
If the answers seemed obvious, and you rattled them right off, you’re probably on the right track.
However, if one or the other of them gave you some problems, a yellow caution light should pop on in your head. If the questions seemed unanswerable, make that light red.
The engine that will drive your story is not running on all its cyllinders and will likely crap out, metaphorically, forty miles east of Tonopah. That’s the literary equivalent of the first fifty pages.
Those of you have driven through the great state of Nevada know there is nothing forty miles east of Tonopah.
Now try this: Get off the Internet. Pull out your yellow pad or fire up your word processor and FIGURE OUT THE ANSWERS. Work, sweat, research, take a long walk, free write. Do whatever it takes to identify what your main character really wants, what action he or she is willing to take to get there, and what stands in the way. If you don’t know the answers to these questions, your book is dead. And, in the words of George Jones, “That’s the cold, hard truth.”
If this assignment wasn’t difficult enough, let me add another level of complexity. It’s entirely possible that, as the book begins, your main character doesn’t know what she wants more than anything in the world, doesn’t realize how much she is capable of doing and has no clue what incredible obstacles stand in her path. But somebody better know. And that somebody is you.
Let me know how this exercize worked out for you. Send me your success stories, your catastrophic literary collapses.
As always, WRITE AT ABSOLUTE TOP SPEED. (watch for futher posts on the efffacy of this approach.)