by Julie Wright
There are three main elements to every story regardless of how short or how long. The three elements are:
You need the first . . . the character . . . because people like to read about other people. Even when we read children’s books about animals or bugs, we always give those things human attributes.
We like to read about other’s lives because we like to escape our own lives. We want to become the character so we can sympathize, or at least be able to relate to the character so we can empathize. Without characters you cannot achieve emotional depth.
Jeff Savage has taught me to never solicit unearned emotion. Killing off a character in the beginning of the book and having the widow sobbing at the gravesite is kind of interesting, but we don’t really care. We don’t know the guy in the casket. So make sure your characters are in place. Properly introduce us to them so we want to like them, and root for them, and mourn with them. So we care when things go wrong. If you even give a small scene to that couple before the husband dies, then you come to like them and you’ve earned the emotion of pain when he dies.
Conflict stirs things up and makes things happen. Without conflict your story will be boring. I have found on the occasions where I’ve helped brand new writers with manuscripts that the most common issue their manuscripts have is not enough conflict. Too often people think that conflict is just the: you say tomato and I say tomahto. They consider the odd couple squabbling a good enough conflict
And while this has been used in several successful plots, there are always other subtle conflicts going on as well. There are opposing desires, death, stress, tension with work, tension with school, tension with family members. Every human being alive interacts on many levels with many different people. So you can use the ploy of differing personalities as your conflict, but make sure there is something more. Pride and Prejudice pulled this off expertly.
The whole concept was Elizabeth determined to hate this proud MR Darcy because he said tomato and she said tomahto. But there was so much more going on. You had the nefarious Wickham not only making Elizabeth’s heart race but also stealing the attention of her sister and causing disgrace for the family. You had ridiculous Mr. Collins proposing to sensible Elizabeth. You had Mr. Bingley who loved Jane, but was separated from her by his friends and family. And you had Mr. Bennett, an intelligent man who married an absurd woman for her beauty, and now has to live with the fact that she’s absurd. There are layers and layers of conflict within that novel. That’s how all of us should be writing.
Every day we all come in contact with personal conflict. (Ask someone what their conflict was in the last week.) It's that conflict and the struggle the characters has to undergo that keeps us readers interested and in suspense. Will the character succeed or won't he? And when is this all going to happen? And how is it all going to happen?
Imagine writing a children’s book with me for a moment.
There once was an apple. The apple was red. The apple hung from the tree until it rotted off the branch. The end.
There is not one kid in the world who would think that was an interesting children’s book. I don’t care how good the artist is who illustrates the thing, Harper Collins will never buy it. And no child would ever want to read it.
So make something happen. Give the apple a worm.
Or give the girl a boyfriend.
Or give the coworker that promotion your character worked so hard for.
Something that starts has to finish, one way or another.Once you have created great characters, which the reader will come to care about, and you have placed them in conflict, that conflict at the end of your story has to be resolved. The characters will achieve their goals or they won't.
That doesn't matter.
You can end your story as you please and as it suits your story - but you have to end it. Ending the story means resolving the conflict. In the end everyone must be happy. And being happy doesn’t always have to mean that everything is perfect, but loose ends must be tied up and the characters must have reconciled themselves to the imperfect life.
Each layer of conflict has been resolved in a daisy chain of inter-connectedness, one closure bringing the closure of another.
When creating problems for your main characters, think along two lines. A big, external conflict that forms the plot and keeps the story moving, and an internal conflict that forces your character to change, reflecting the theme. This will give your story depth, and give your readers something to think about.