What has to happen?

What has to happen? This is the prompt I use most often. It is not immediately obvious why this is such a great prompt. Let me explain.

At the beginning of your story, there will be a situation – either good or bad opportunity. So you just ask the question ‘What has to happen for my character to start the quest?’

Ask the question at each step of the character’s journey. Ask ‘What has to happen for my character to doubt the quest?’ and you will find the answers spring to your head.

And listen to your characters. They won’t react the way you expect them to react. When our boiler had a leak I called the plumber, but I know a couple of guys who would try to repair the boiler themselves (usually with very little success and causing untold grief and disappointment – it made a great story).

Now that is what had to happen!

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Two character questions

  1. What is your character hoping for?
  2. What is your character afraid of?

Something or someone must stand in her way otherwise there is no conflict, no tension and therefore, no story.  The dramatic tension lies in the contrast between hope & fear.

Your reader wants two things – to identify with your hero and to escape from her own reality.  So, from the outset, tell us what the hero wants to achieve. That is our hook into the story. Now, keep the hero focused on this objective. Nothing else matters.

If your hero moves aimlessly through the action, only reacting to events, then we are in danger of losing our interest in her story.

So, force the hero into action. And the more extrovert she is, the better. Extroverts just can’t help making a fuss. Add to that the ability to be frightened and you have got an interesting character.  Without fear, your character can’t exhibit true courage. And if there is no courage, then the character doesn’t grow and isn’t changed by the adventure. And that would be a disappointment.

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Your prisons

We tend to revisit our prisons. And we always go back. This is not only true for reservation Indians, of course. I have white friends who grew up very comfortably, but who hate their families, and yet they go back everything Thanksgiving and Christmas. Every year, they’re ruined until February. I’m always telling them, “You know, you don’t have to go. You can come to my house.” Why are they addicted to being demeaned and devalued by the people who are supposed to love them? So you can see the broader applicability: I’m in the suburb of my mind. I’m in the farm town of my mind. I’m in the childhood bedroom of my mind.

I think every writer stands in the doorway of their prison. Half in, half out. The very act of storytelling is a return to the prison of what torments us and keeps us captive, and writers are repeat offenders. You go through this whole journey with your prison, revisiting it in your mind. Hopefully, you get to a point when you realise there was beauty in your prison, too. Maybe, when you get to that point, “I’m on the reservation of my mind” can also be a beautiful thing. It’s on the rez, after all, where I learnt to tell stories. Sherman Alexie, author of Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven

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Poor dialogue

Poor dialogue happens when the writer isn’t sensitive to the way his character talks. Poor dialogue is when characters overact and the dialogue is explicit. Poor dialogue is when it is used to drag the story along.

If the dialogue does not develop the plot or show the characters’ personality or ambitions, then leave it out. Sometimes silence works best.

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Oh my God!

Oedipus killed his Father and slept with his mother but he did not know this till he and his mother were told by the seer, Tiresias.

Your character’s life told in the narration halts your story’s forward motion dead in its tracks, whereas one or two well-dramatised scenes can powerfully represent that past life and at the same time keep your action moving.

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