by Eldred Bird
You’ve just come up with what you believe is a brilliant new idea for your next short story, novel, or screenplay. You sit down at the keyboard, stretch your back, crack your knuckles, and flex your fingers. You stare at the screen for the next twenty minutes or so waiting for inspiration to hit.
When it doesn’t come, you begin to question the life choices that led you down the path of becoming a writer. This leads to doubting your original premise and asking yourself, “Do I really have a story worth telling or not?”
Whether it’s our first tale or our thirtieth, we've all been in this position. So, how do you answer the question? A great place to start is with the Six Essential Questions from screenwriter Glenn Gers. Not only will these six questions help you evaluate your story idea but elevate it as well.
The first question to ask is who the story is about. I’m not talking about a name, but a description. Who are they as a person and what makes them interesting enough to follow along their journey. Where did they come from and where are they heading? What makes them different? What are their hopes and fears? The more you know, the more interesting you can make the character.
You can have one individual or an ensemble, but remember the more main characters you have, the more complicated things can get. You’ll need to ask these same six questions for every character.
Bottom line—the deeper the characters, the easier it will be for the readers to form an emotional attachment. When the readers care about the characters, they’ll care more about what the characters want, and that leads us to the next question.
As Kurt Vonnegut famously said, “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” That’s what drives a plot and keeps the story moving forward. If your character is content and lacks for nothing, then there’s nothing pushing them out of their comfort zone. Without that motivator there is no story. Need is the carrot on the stick dangling just out of reach.
What a character wants can be external or internal. Are they moving toward something or running away from it? Maybe they are being pushed to achieve a goal or stop someone else from reaching theirs. Ask this of every character in every scene and you’ll have a more compelling tale.
This is where we throw roadblocks in the path of our characters. If a character gets what they want too easily, we’re going to have a pretty uneventful narrative. We need to complicate things for them.
Let’s say your main character (we’ll call her Beth) is hungry. Beth walks into the kitchen, opens the refrigerator, and takes out half a sandwich left over from lunch. She eats it and goes back to whatever she was doing before the hunger struck. Pretty boring, right?
Now let’s say Beth opens the fridge and finds it empty. The cupboards are the same. She checks her pockets and purse but finds only a few pennies. No money equals no food. What Beth wants is food. What stands in her way is lack of funds to buy it. Now we have a motivator to drive our story forward.
Physical limitations and other characters often impede a character getting what they need, but roadblocks don’t have to be external. Some of the biggest challenges characters often have to overcome are internal. What are your character’s biggest fears and phobias? Overcoming them is a great way to show growth in a character.
What are they going to do to overcome the obstacles you’ve placed in their path? They need to come up with a plan, but don’t make it too easy. Put something at risk, either physically or emotionally. The best stories get us emotionally involved, so keep the stakes high.
Make the plan something that will test the character’s limits. Push them beyond what they perceive they are capable of but keep it believable. If you go too far it’s easy to lose the suspension of disbelief and the interest of the reader.
If the plan our character comes up with works right out of the box, then we’re going to have a short and anticlimactic story. We need to complicate things. The first try should fail but teach the character something they need to know. Think of each setback as a learning experience where they discover something about the obstacle or, more importantly, themselves.
Let’s look at Beth again. She needs money for food. The obvious solution is to get a job, but there’s something stopping her. She’s afraid to face the outside world after losing her spouse in a tragic accident, so she decides to look for a job where she can work from home.
Unfortunately, every employer she queries requires an in-person interview. After several failed attempts to leave the apartment, she finally works up the courage and steps outside. A victory, right? Time to complicate things a little more. Now she’s afraid to get on the bus.
The new stumbling block has sent her right back to step three. The character has to reevaluate and come up with a new plan, so it’s rinse and repeat until they gain what they need to reach their final goal.
There are countless ways to end a story, but basically it comes down to the main character either getting what they want or not. You decide whether it’s going to be a happily-ever-after moment or learning to live with the disappointment of a quest unfulfilled. In either case, the character should experience some kind of growth.
My favorite tales are the ones where the character gets what they need rather than what they want. It really shows growth when someone can break the pattern of what’s expected of them and end up in a much better place as a result.
I think Glenn himself summed it up best when he said:
“Every story is about someone trying to get something, and the people and things that get in their way.”
So, every time you sit down to plot, write, or edit, answer these six simple questions. Do it for every story, every chapter, and every scene. Then when you ask, “Do I have a story?” you’ll be able to answer YES.
Pick something you’ve written and answer these six questions. Did you cover all the bases or find something you missed? How do you evaluate your stories? Let us know in the comments.
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Eldred Bird writes contemporary fiction, short stories, and personal essays. He has spent a great deal of time exploring the deserts, forests, and deep canyons inside his home state of Arizona. His James McCarthy adventures, Killing Karma, Catching Karma, and Cold Karma, reflect this love of the Grand Canyon State even as his character solves mysteries amidst danger. Eldred explores the boundaries of short fiction in his stories, The Waking Room, Treble in Paradise: A Tale of Sax and Violins, and The Smell of Fear.
When he’s not writing, Eldred spends time cycling, hiking, and juggling (yes, juggling…bowling balls and 21-inch knives).
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