So far in The Key to a Great Story, I have explored the basics of different types of characters, and different types of plot. In my previous post about Driving the Plot Forward, I discussed how you need to use the events taking place and drive the story forward. A lot of how you go about doing this comes from the reactions of your characters, whether pro-active or re-active, and is dependent on the type and source of the events taking place.
In theory now, you have the majority of the basics as I understand them in place to map out a story, whether it be a short piece or an epic series. Learning how to combine it all though is an acquired skill; it’s not difficult to acquire it just takes practice. So this blog post is a summary of everything I’ve talked about so far in this blog series, and how I go about approaching the production of an outline.
The first thing you need is a vague idea about the story you want to write. They say everyone has a book inside of them, so if you have even the smallest of inkling of an idea that you want to write, make a note of it. And here in lies the first step in writing.
Now your idea is going to vary from everybody else’s idea. You might have an idea about an interesting character or you have an idea about a plot for a story but without a population to fill up the events. You might have a combination of both, in which case I recommend you start with the element that has the strongest foundation. I’m going to talk about character first, so if plot is your stronger point then start with the plot section further down and scroll back up to character afterwards, before looking at combinations.
Now you have a idea about a character. You will read a lot on the internet about lists of favourite colours, music, etc., but for me the starting point is always, is your character the protagonist or are they an antagonist.
Now most people would be surprised to think that a person would imagine an antagonist first, and not the main character, but I know from experience that sometimes you come up with the antagonist first and then create a protagonist to counter them. For a short story I wrote when I was teenager, I thought of a murderer first before I even created his victim and crime. It does sometimes happen. Either way you need to take your character and you need to expand their personality.
By this I mean working out how they would react to certain situations. They don’t even need to be plots you’re considering for your story. A lot of where this character is going come from is you. I wrote more in depth about character reactions in my post on ‘Understanding yourself when creating characters’, and in that post in I wrote two exercises to help you focus on character development. One was a combat situation, that would help you to determine the reactively of your character in an extreme situation The other was the dynamics that this character would have with other characters. Both are extremely useful exercises to use a starting point.
Knowing whether your character is an protagonist or an antagonist will have a different effect on the conclusions that you draw, the reason being that they might have different expectations of the situation. In battle the antagonist might want victory at any cost, whereas the protagonist might be driven by the need to survive and protect the status quo. This difference means the character would react differently.
Exploring the dynamics of how characters interact with each other also has an effect on your choice. In exploring your character you will likely begin to develop other characters to populate your story. For a protagonist you might be developing their friends and lovers, and the dynamics of the relationships that they have together. For antagonists you will be doing the same, and what you might actually discover is that your antagonist is a friend of the protagonist who develop conflict with each other because they have different motivations.
You might end up creating the difference between good and evil in your story, or you might end up creating the complexities of friendship that sometime result in characters becoming a redeemable antagonist.
What you will also begin to determine is the relationship the character is likely to have with others. Are they a puppet or a puppeteer. Are they minor character? Or have you only created a character watching your story unfold from the crowd gathered around to watch. To be able to ultimately decide that though you do need to start considering plot.
In my blog series I have been talking about the seven plot theory. If you have an idea for a plot then I recommend that you try and figure out what type of story your idea fits into. Is it a overcoming a threat, rags to riches, quest, voyage and return, comedy, tragedy or rebirth story.
Once you figure that out, you have a starting point to begin to figure out the structure of your story. Write down your idea and pinpoint whether this idea is the beginning, middle or end of your story.
For my current work in progress, which is a fantasy series, I actually thought of the ending first, then immediately how I would want to begin the series. The bits in the middle are the harder bits for me to figure out, as I have a very clear idea of what I want to start and end with, but the journey in the middle of how to get there is constantly evolving, even as I write.
Knowing your type of story gives you a go starting point in conceiving the general outline of you plot. What do you want to see happen?
Going any further than that though requires you to know the characters that are going to populate the story. If you haven’t done so already begin to have a look at your characters before moving to the combination process.
Combining Character and Plot to Create an Outline
Now you have a few characters and a basic plot you now need to combine the two together. As you did with the character development where you road tested your characters in certain situations, you now need to test your characters against the plot that you have devised.
Remember you are still creating an outline at this point, so you are entitled to change your mind, in fact I would be surprised if you didn’t change your mind about something. Putting your characters into the plot of your story will surprise you, and many authors say that characters begin to develop themselves and the story that they are in. This is a very organic process, and what I recommend you do is write.
Produce scenes using your characters in certain situations and see what it is they end up saying. Where most of this will come from is from you. It will be how you are reacting to the situation. What takes practise is learning to react differently to the situation, and by doing so you are creating individual reactions for the set of characters. Some of your characters might be utterly terrified in combat, and seek to hide. Other character might find their bravery and step up to the mark. Both are completely natural reactions; fight or flight.
What you will discover in doing this is the complexity of the character dynamics and the complexity of the plot. You will develop the relationships between characters, and how that relationship impacts on a character reaction to a scene. The friends of your protagonists might drift apart for a while as their abilities to cope with a situation or their ideas on how to solve the problems differ.
The complexity of your plot will also deepen, and you make discover new plots and ideas being formed, which will develop you more basic plot, into a more detailed one. You might end up with a mash-up or with sub-plots.
And here in I will place emphasis on the word ‘might’. None of this is guaranteed. Writing a plot and developing character is a complicated process that gets easier with practice. Some people find the process more natural than others, but I strongly believe that anyone can do it.
It might just take more practice for you than it does with others. Writing is parts of the arts. Drawing, painting, playing instruments, and the like come more naturally to some than to others. Perseverance though is a writer’s greatest tool, and giving up means you will never be able to do it.
So if you have an idea, whether it be a character or a plot, you can develop it further. You might never write the story, as you might find it doesn’t work, but it is practice for when you do find the idea that does.
Of course character and plot is not the be all and end all of a story, but it is certainly an essential place where you need to start in order to create an outline.