There is a question I dread above all others when I’m writing something new. “What’s your book about?” It makes me want to do this:
“Well, there’s this other world. And then the guns go PEW PEW and there’s some romance and a hot guy with a leather jacket and a mirror and…”
It’s not nearly as stupid as it sounds. But you can see the problem. You still don’t know what the story is about. (Apparently, neither did I.)
One of my favorite movies of all time is Die Hard. (So much so, I used it in a presentation about story structure you’ll see soon!) If you asked me what Die Hard was about, I’d tell you, “It’s about a New York cop who must thwart a terrorist plot in a skyscraper in order to save his estranged wife and restore their relationship.” Is there more to it than that? Sure. But that’s the story in a single sentence.
I didn’t recognize the power of this single sentence until I started querying for the first time. If you think writing a novel is hard, try writing a query letter that encapsulates your 80,000 word masterpiece in a few short paragraphs. For the mathematically minded, that’s more than a 99% compression. The shorter you go, the harder it is. As I went through the process, I realized the problem wasn’t the format. It was my writing. Not that it was horrible, just that it wasn’t as focused as it should have been. With the experience of querying under my belt, I now start out my outlining with the query in mind.
I think you should do the same, even if you don’t intend to seek publication. If you can summarize your book in a single sentence, then you know exactly what your story is about and what is driving your character through the plot. Some writers even call this the “through-line.” (Which I just learned comes from Stanislavski’s acting technique. The more you know…) If you do this before you write it rather than waiting until you’re trying to pitch the book, you’ll write with a much sharper focus than you’d otherwise have.
A Tangled Web
For the next few topics, I have to give a disclaimer. As we start to dig into story structure and talk about plot and character, it’s really impossible to say one must happen first. Your character will drive the story, but as you decide what kind of story you want to tell, it will force certain traits on your character. You may find yourself going back and forth between some of the stages. Before we get into the outline, I’ll refer back to several posts to make sure we’ve got everything tied together.
Previously, we did some brainstorming. Hopefully, you came up with some ideas that intrigued you. As I said yesterday, an idea alone is not a story. Stories are about people with problems. Story is what happens when fate comes along, kicks over our sand castle, and says, “What the hell are you going to do about it?”
As I mentioned, the one-liner is going to help sharpen your focus. It will help you make decisions as you write. It will help rescue you from 3,000 word detours that don’t get your protagonist any closer to what they want. Actors want to know who their character is and what their motivation is at any given time. You should be doing the same.
This one-line version of your story can be tweaked into a hook or a logline, and there are lots of different versions of it out there. This is just going to be an exercise in thinking about your story, so whichever one suits you is fine.
Greater minds than mine have already refined the idea of a logline or a hook, so I’m going to share a few versions with you.
When EXTERNAL STORY QUEST forces CHARACTER to confront her INTERNAL PROBLEM or STAKES, PLOT illustrates the THEME. (Martina Boone @ Adventures in YA Publishing)
*WHEN SOMETHING HAPPENS*, *YOUR PROTAGONIST* *PURSUES A GOAL*. But will he succeed when *ANTAGONIST PROVIDES OPPOSITION*? (Jim Butcher, Author of The Dresden Files)
Notice how they sound like book covers or movie trailers? That’s the point. Those are tools that try to get you interested by giving you the purest concentration of the story possible. You want to know what it’s about? That’s it right there.
When I’m trying to get to this one-liner, I ask myself these questions. These are partially inspired by Katie Mac’s Three Query Questions on the Absolute Write forums:
- What does this character want?
- External – generally plot-driven and story-specific
- Internal – more universal needs
- What stands in their way?
- What happens if they fail?
(Note that I did not just say “what does the protagonist want?” I like to do this exercise with the antagonist too. What they want should come in direct conflict with the protagonist.)
So, let’s take Die Hard again. Yes, Die Hard is a popcorn action movie with a lot of explosions, gunfire, and cursing. But there are actually some pretty good story-telling elements present in the movie.
In his brainstorming stage, the original writer of Die Hard might have said, “What if a single cop was locked in a building taken over by terrorists?” (The original book has a different setup from the movie, so I’m going to stick with the movie for now.)
But it takes more than that to make a memorable story. If it was just about a terrorist attack, it could be about anyone in the building. This is John McClane’s story, so we need to know what John McClane – not Joe Schmoe or Janie Anybody – wants. There’s always going to be an external need – to survive, to kill the terrorists, to get the girl – but he comes into the story with a specific internal need that drives him. McClane has been separated from his wife, and we’re not sure where that relationship is headed. Part of his motivation, then, is to save her so that they have a chance to fix their relationship.
External needs are easy. They’re usually driven by the events of the plot. Survival. Romance. Wealth. Internal needs are harder. We want to be loved, to have peace of mind, to have financial security, to find God, to be accepted, to make amends, to be forgiven…what makes your character tick?
John McClane wants his family to go back to normal, but his idea of normal involves his wife failing at her dreams, hence the conflict between them. Is it a character-driven movie? Absolutely not. But McClane does change by the end. When things are getting dark, he admits he should have supported her and asks Powell to tell his wife that he loves her just in case.
After that, the opposition and stakes are fairly straightforward. The German terrorists stand in his way, and his wife will die if he fails. Badaboom.
So take a look at the ideas you’ve been coming up with. You might still be thinking in broad strokes about your story, and that’s okay. This may be something you come back to after a few more days. Ask yourself these questions again and again, and when you can answer them, you’re ready to start the business of the story.
The next few posts will get more into each part of this – motivation, conflict, and stakes. Until next time, happy planning!
NaNo Bootcamp Rerunsby