Girl meets boy. Cop catches killer. Knight defeats dragon.
There may only be a limited number of types of story, but each is made up of a series of connected goals.
In order to get from A to Z, you first have to get from A to B. Then from B to C. How the character reaches each goal requires a choice. When you string enough choices together not only do you end up with a story, but you also create a pattern to that narrative.
In order to get the most out of this process, though, you need to be aware of what options are available to the character at each stage.
The most obvious and familiar ways to deal with a problem, both from real life and from other works of fiction, are going to pop into your head first. But if you dig a bit deeper, you will find a variety of alternatives.
That doesn’t mean you should choose one bizarre event after another—unless that’s the kind of story you want to write—but putting a character on a set path and then seeing them through from one end to the other makes it feel predictable.
It’s easy as a writer to reduce the process to the final decision. You know what he’s going to end up doing so why not cut to the chase? But it’s seeing the character make the choice that’s the interesting part for the reader. Why did he have to make the decision? What were the options? How did it go over? What were the consequences? These are the things that turn a predictable journey into a story.
Here’s an example of what I mean. Tim is a journalist and he’s going to get sent to Glasgow to cover a story. The scene I write to show this is in Tim’s editor’s office where the editor tells him his assignment and sends him off.
That could be an okay scene, showing us where Tim works, some banter between boss and employee, some set up as to what the story is going to be about, and so on.
But ultimately the reader is told what is going to happen and then it happens. I want you on a plane to Glasgow tonight... and then he’s on a plane.
There’s no room for making choices here. However, if I know that I want my character to go to Glasgow in this story, then what if his editor sits him down and tells him he wants him on the first plane to Dublin?
Now he has to think of a way to get himself off that story and onto the one he’s interested in. He could ask the editor nicely, he could trick an ambitious rival into demanding the Dublin gig, he could lie, he could beg, or whatever.
You have the character’s personality (what he’s capable of) and you have all the ways you can think of to get him on that plane. Every time he makes a move, an array of new moves and counter-moves come into play.
It’s like the road splitting into ten paths, choosing one, and then that road splitting into ten branches and so on. Only, instead of ten paths, you actually have however many you can imagine your character considering.
Even though he’s still just going from A to B, there isn’t just one route to take. That’s what creates the feeling of it being his story, even though what he’s doing isn’t new or unusual. But it’s important to show the choices being made, not just their outcome.
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