by Ellen Buikema
The antagonist is a character that many readers love and many writers hate. In fact, one of my author friends told me that writing her antagonist was a painful experience. “It was a really hard book to write. I had nightmares when I was writing about this character. It was one of the best feelings in the world when I finished writing this.”
In writing my current book, The Hobo Code, I learned what she meant. The book’s main antagonist is a psychopath. To capture the essence of the character, I picked the brain of a retired forensic psychologist and her suggestions surprised me. For example, she recommended I not write chapters from that antagonist’s perspective. “You don’t want to go there,” she said vehemently. “It will give you nightmares.”
I wonder how many forensic psychologists have PTSD by the time they retire.
The Delicate Balance Between Hero and Antagonist
As in all life, there must be balance. Your protagonist needs someone or something, to push against, overcome, or to come to terms with. Some examples:
- Nature: Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm
- An institution: Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games
- Disease: Stephen King’s The Stand
- The supernatural: Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight
Note: Twilight is an interesting case as Bella’s humanity might be considered one of the story’s antagonists. Her humanity conflicts with her desire to become a vampire.
Observation and various discussions have led me to the conclusion that most people feel they are the heroes of their own life story. People in power who we believe are in the wrong likely feel that their reasons are good and just—merely not understood by the average person. Antagonists feel the same.
No matter how horrific the means are to the ends, the antagonist believes his or her actions are justifiable.
Give Your Antagonist Some Depth
The antagonist needs a story arc. This character must grow and change, even if it’s only into a more heinous monster. At the same time, he should have qualities the reader can empathize with, such as liking dogs, enjoying cake baking, or taking time to teach children how to make a homemade fishing rod.
House-sit your evil one.
Spend time with him.
Learn his motivation.
Flesh out his backstory to know why he acts as he does. The more you know, the easier it will be to determine what makes him tick. How does he react to triggers? People are truly the sum of their experiences. What life choices or chance encounters have helped make your antagonist what he is?
Different types of antagonists create different kinds of conflict.
Psychopaths have an inherited condition, often related to under-developed impulse control centers of the brain. They can make interesting antagonists. In Jeff Lindsay’s Darkly Dreaming Dexter, the Dexter character is a psychopathic protagonist with charm—an anti-hero. Dexter’s main antagonist is a copycat serial killer. Both have strong anti-social tendencies but we find ourselves rooting for one and detesting the other.
The antagonist doesn’t have to be evil. He may cause conflict by acting in opposition to the protagonist, erecting barriers against the protagonist’s goals. Samuel Gerard, in D.J. Manly’s The Fugitive: A Novel is an antagonist. He stands in opposition to Richard Kimble and is definitely not evil. In this case, the protagonist understands this antagonist is just doing his job.
An antagonist may be a good person who has become corrupt due to life circumstances. Something pushed him over the edge. Most of the royal characters in George R. R. Martin’s “A Song of Fire and Ice” are corrupt. Did the position of power cause corruption? Perhaps there was childhood trauma? The Cersei Lannister character is ruthless, yet still has love for her children. She has some softness in her character to put a dent in her emotional armor. Lord Voldemort of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series was once Tom Riddle. He wasn’t always someone to be feared.
Your protagonist may have an internal antagonist in the form of character flaw, like Bella’s humanity (according to Bella) in Twilight. Sometimes desires are in the way of needs. There might be fear or regret to overcome before tackling the primary antagonist.
What if you have more than one antagonist?
Some stories have secondary antagonists to give your protagonist trouble, a warm-up of sorts. Here are some ideas for handling multiple antagonists:
- Deal with something small before taking on the major issues.
- Give your protagonist plenty to work on to reach his goal.
- Your secondary antagonist stirs up trouble for your primary antagonist and your protagonist.
Digging deep into the dark, dredging up fearful situations, pains the mind. I don’t know anyone who enjoys revisiting demons from the past, but getting to know your antagonist well will make for a better, more balanced story.
Have you delved into your antagonist’s backstory? What motivates your antagonist?
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Author, speaker, and former teacher, Ellen L. Buikema has written non-fiction for parents and a series of chapter books for children with stories encouraging the development of empathy—sprinkling humor wherever possible. Her Work In Progress, The Hobo Code, is YA historical fiction.
by Tiffany Yates Martin
It sounds like a writer's dream: hours of time at home, no expectations to go anywhere or do anything outside your house. You can really dedicate the time to better your writing, right? But what if you don't feel like writing? Many writers have experienced a short-circuiting of their creative energy during this quarantine, with everyone stuck at home.
Maybe your creative space and time have been crowded out. Maybe worry, uncertainty, and even fear make it hard to concentrate on your craft. Perhaps the very sensitivity that makes artists artists might be working against your ability to create your art in such unsettled times.
But even if all you’re able to manage right now is curling up on the sofa with a book or the remote control, taking in other people’s stories can actually be a wonderful opportunity to learn to objectively assess your own and hone your skills.
So don’t worry if you just can’t find your creative spark at the moment. Trust me, it’s there—like a pilot light that never goes out—and you can feed it no matter where you are mentally at the moment.
The Beauty of Passive Intake
“I just want to curl up and couch surf.”
If you’re finding you simply can’t get off the sofa and all you’ve got in you right now is binge-watching and binge-reading, that’s fine. Stay right where you are and carry on—what I call “passive” intake of story is still an effective way to develop your storytelling skills. There’s no need to actively analyze; just relax and let it wash over you, allowing yourself to osmose it.
Did you like the story? Did it draw you in? Were you invested in the characters? Was there a sense of urgency or momentum that kept you watching/turning pages (or not)? Did the emotional moments affect you? Did the plot hold together and feel complete, the end satisfying? Don’t think; just feel the story.
The beauty of passive intake is that there are no right answers; you're observing you and your reactions, just noticing, as in meditation.
Did something make you cry? Why? Can you pinpoint it?
Were you on the edge of your seat at any point? How come...can you trace it back?
Don’t try too hard; just gently see if the reasons jump out at you. For instance, “I really cared about Vivian and she wanted to shop so badly” or “Dammit, I know Carole did it and got away with it.” Whatever raised a reaction in you, just tease out that thread a little bit.
This kind of passive reading/watching is the equivalent of the initial cold read editors do to orient ourselves to a story—and it’s the first step I suggest to authors in editing their own work with an objective eye. In the examples above, for instance, you’ve noticed very concretely how making the viewer care about the protagonist and then making her care passionately about something is how you create a visceral reaction. In the second, you’ve seen that tapping into a viewer’s sense of injustice can evince a visceral sense of outrage. You’re learning how to deeply and directly invest your readers.
So if this is all you have in you at the moment, it’s still valuable training in storytelling techniques when the time comes to write or revise. (But no rush! For now just sit back and start that next episode of Ozark….)
When Creativity Is Elusive
“I’ve got a little bit of juice in me, but my creative side is comatose.”
No worries. You can still serve your writing from under the covers while you stay up all night reading (why not? who can sleep?). If your brain is working but you’re not in creation mode, you’re in a great position to dig a little deeper and let yourself start to analyze a bit.
Start asking yourself the kind of questions editors ask as they begin to assess a story—in parentheses after some of the ones I suggest below are the storytelling elements you’re enhancing your understanding of:
- Is there a central story question? Can you sum up what it is? (Plot, character, stakes)
- Who were the protagonists, and were they the engine of the story—meaning did they directly drive the action? (Character, plot, stakes)
- Did you feel you knew them—that they were real people? In what way? (Character)
- Did you care about them? Why or why not? (Character, stakes, point of view, voice)
- Did the story keep propelling you forward? If not, where did your focus lag? (Stakes, character, plot, momentum and pace, suspense and tension)
- Were the story events believable? (Plot)
- Were there extraneous story events, or loose ends? (Plot, character)
- Did it all tie together cohesively? (Plot)
- Did the story take you on a clear journey? Were the characters changed somehow by the end of the story? Was that change a direct result of the story events? (Character, plot, story arc)
If this is all you do, you’re still helping your own writing and storytelling by learning to actively and objectively analyze what makes an effective, engaging story—or what hampers it. You’re an animal behaviorist patiently observing your subject and learning how they behave, what makes them tick, and that understanding becomes part of your own creative process, making you a more deliberate, knowledgeable writer.
When Motivation Is Elusive
“I’m still sharp as a tack, but couldn’t feel less like writing.”
This is when you can switch to a more active type of art intake—you’re not just watching your subjects; now you’re going to dissect them to really find out how they work.
For this deep-dive approach I recommend using a book, movie, or show you’ve already seen and re-watching or re-reading. When you’re no longer taking it in for the first time you can be more analytical. This is the equivalent of the editor’s main edit pass, when we immerse ourselves fully in the manuscript and really start digging down.
Now you’ll more deeply examine the answers to some of the questions I suggest asking. This isn’t an exhaustive or prescriptive list, just suggestions to get your mind jump-started on the kinds of things you might investigate. When you find yourself reacting to something in a story, that’s when to pith the subject—press pause or stop reading—and go back and start dissecting.
I’ve made some book or movie suggestions with each question, but literally any story can be analyzed this way.
- Do I really care about this character—or am I somewhat indifferent? In either case, why? (Examine specifically the ways the author/filmmaker made you invest in the central characters, or didn’t, for example Marriage Story, or Hitch, or The Hate U Give.)
- Am I hooked—do I have to turn the page or watch the next episode? Why? (Analyze anything you ever binged, in any genre: Big Little Lies, The L-Word, The Americans. Thumb through first and last lines of chapters/sections, or episode ends, or scene transitions, and pinpoint exactly what made you keep going: for instance, unresolved tension, an unanswered question, a mystery, a cliffhanger?)
- Am I surprised…or can I figure out the plot? How did the author/writer keep me guessing, exactly—and if they didn’t, what telegraphed the plot? (Dissect a story where you were or weren’t surprised and parse out what gave it away or set it up, or alternatively, how the storyteller misdirected you or created uncertainty: Ozark, The Good Place, Fight Club, etc.)
- Is every scene essential in moving the story forward? If so, how—what does each one accomplish? (Analyze scene by scene stories with great momentum, and those where your attention lagged: The Princess Bride; Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri; Little Fires Everywhere.)
- Am I on the edge of my seat, heart pounding? What specific elements created that in me? (Dissect how a storyteller created suspense and tension, paying extra attention to places where you’re especially hooked: Get Out, The Kite Runner, Finding Nemo.)
- Is the story multitasking—working on various levels and accomplishing more than one thing with each scene? Specifically what, and how? (Pick a scene you loved, for any reason, and parse out what it accomplishes as far as storytelling, like character development, moving the story forward, emotional layers, motivations, etc.—and how: Crazy, Stupid, Love, Walk on the Moon, An American Marriage.)
- Does the end satisfy me? If so, how? If not, why not? (With so many shows ending right now, it’s a great chance to analyze this storytelling element and what does or doesn’t create satisfying story resolution: Will and Grace, Schitt’s Creek, Modern Family.)
This is a fraction of the kind of questions you can ask, the areas of story you can dissect. Once you’ve noticed your own reactions during the passive-intake first watch or read, reverse-engineer the story as you re-watch or re-read those sections and parse out exactly what created those reactions in you:
- Did you get bogged down in backstory? Why?
- Did the characters seem flat to you? How come?
- Did you lose interest anywhere? Where and why, exactly?
You can also consciously dissect how authors, actors, or directors convey emotion, state of mind, reaction, interaction and dynamics—the “non-verbals” and subtexts of story that create depth and nuance.
Replay a scene with your eyes closed, for instance; then watch it again with the sound off. Notice how an author describes physicality, reaction, expression, emotion—or what those traits look like in an actor when those feelings are evoked.
You can dissect how skilled writers effectively use show and tell by listing out everything you know about the characters and plot in the scene based on what you read or saw—and see if you can pinpoint exactly what let you know it.
Or see if you can define how the author/filmmaker created their unique voice. Is it the language—the words or phrasing the author uses? Is it some identifiable orientation toward the world or the subject that feels distinctive to you? Is it the author’s or screenwriter’s personality or aesthetic or worldview that shines through? A Phoebe Waller-Bridge show is very different from a Shonda Rimes one, for instance—can you verbalize why, exactly?
If an author’s style or a certain passage delights you (or disgusts you), stop and break it down to figure out specifically why.
It’s equally valuable to do this with stories you didn’t like as much as those you did. Notice or analyze why they didn’t work for you.
These observation and analysis techniques work with anything story-based, which is almost everything: books, TV shows, and movies, but I’ve also learned loads about storytelling from magazine profiles, from investigative journalism and provocative think-pieces, from Bernie Taupin lyrics, even from especially effective commercials. As this kind of analytical thinking about story becomes habit, you can glean a wealth of knowledge about effective storytelling every single day of your life, whether your muse is dancing nearby or not.
Be kind to yourself, artists. Take the pressure off yourself to write or create during these unprecedented times, and let yourself just be still and take in for now. You’re still serving your craft, and I promise the creative spark is still burning—and the flame will flare up again.
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Tiffany Yates Martin has spent nearly thirty years as an editor in the publishing industry, working with major publishers and bestselling authors as well as newer writers, and is the author of Intuitive Editing: A Creative and Practical Guide to Revising Your Writing. She's led workshops and seminars for conferences and writers' groups across the country and is a frequent contributor to writers' sites and publications. Visit her at www.foxprinteditorial.com, and connect on Facebook and Twitter.
"I trust Tiffany Yates Martin with the editing process even more than I trust myself. Read this book and steal her secrets!"—Kelly Harms, Washington Post–bestselling author of The Overdue Life of Amy Byler
"Tiffany Yates Martin is an exceptional editor, so of course her advice and counsel in Intuitive Editing is exceptional as well. Whether you're a seasoned author looking to fine-tune your craft, pacing, or tension or just starting out and looking for guidance on building overall structure and engaging characters, this book is a must-read that will take you from idea to finished manuscript."—New York Times–bestselling author Allison Winn Scotch
"This book is a must have tool every author needs in their toolkit. When you are ready to go deeper, to dig into the revision process, using Tiffany's Intuitive Editing strategies will help you take your writing to the next level."—New York Times– and USA Today–bestselling author Steena Holmes
"Authors, if you can't be lucky enough to have Tiffany as your editor, then Intuitive Editing is the next-best thing. Her advice is sound, thoughtful, no-nonsense and given with the compassion that every author and their book deserves."—Elisabeth Weed, literary agent, the Book Group
by Tasha Seegmiller
One of the things that's surprised me the most as I’ve advanced in this writing journey is how many people change agents, editors, publishing houses. It’s not something that is discussed widely on the internet, but it happens. A LOT.
Why do these changes happen?
Part of the problem is that writers forget they are allowed to have questions, and they will have questions – questions about something related to publishing, something that their agent or editor might know, but for reasons including mental health issues, insecurity about writing, or a desire to not be that client, they have each paused and let the stress fester a little.
It can be a very scary thing to send an email to someone who you respect, but with whom you have some feelings of frustration, whether it be something that you don’t understand as well as you should, feedback that wasn’t provided when you thought it would be, or writerly imposter syndrome in general.
For these kinds of situations (and so many others in my life) I reach into the vault of brilliance provided by Brené Brown – this time from her book Rising Strong. In it, she states repeatedly about the importance of acknowledging the story we are telling ourselves. Please note that this isn’t the story that is true or the story that is rational – it is the story we are telling ourselves.
For example, I endure depression. I don’t like to say I suffer from it, though sometimes I do. So, the voices that tend to visit me circulate around being enough of whatever the flavor is of the day. I talk to myself as I’m getting ready for the day, greeting those thoughts when I am able to recognize as depression thoughts by their name (our theme song for this meeting is “The Sound of Silence.” The Disturbed version is best for me).
If I am able to tell when I’m in a depression cyclone and when I am having valid concerns, it helps. Then, I choose key moments to share this reality with the professionals I work with.
I do NOT recommend this conversation take place at the beginning of the relationship. I DO think it is something that I think should be shared in close partnerships, and a quality agent or editor relationship should be a close partnership.
5 Key Reminders for Starting the Conversation
With that out of the way, the courage comes in. There are some key things to keep in mind when starting such a conversation:
1. Do NOT write/call when you are on an emotional rollercoaster.
There are going to be times when the initial response to something sends your thoughts and feelings on unpredictable loops and that is not the time to talk.
I have a colleague who has a sticky note on her computer that says “24 hours.” As soon as she has an email/voicemail/hears of a conversation that gets her heart racing, she looks at it and waits. This wisdom works for many situations. Practice it often and even in excess.
2. Always, always, start with a humane greeting.
A sincere inquiry into how things are going, an expression of gratitude for what has been done. Agents and editors work very hard for a lot of people, and you have the opportunity to be part of that. That’s amazing. Express your gratitude often.
3. Lay the foundation for where you are coming from.
- “One of the things that I was wondering . . .”
- “I’ve always been the kind of person who . . .”
- “A question that I have had for a while is . . . “
One of the things to remember with this step is that you can come across as accusatory VERY easily. That is not what you want to do.
This is where Brené Brown comes in. You have to convey the story you are telling yourself. It can be incredibly scary. It can feel terrifying. But honest, true expression wins over and over and over.
4. Present options for resolving the issues you feel need to be addressed.
This can be asking for some particular document that you have heard about but not seen. This can be a request to talk more in-depth in the future. This can even be an estimated timeline to receive feedback.
Some candid advice about this kind of openness: one big course correction every once in a while is necessary but equally necessary is that you, as the author, do everything in your power to make any necessary minor modifications as the journey toward your publication goals continues.
It is not healthy for individuals within the relationship, or for the relationship in general, to lock everything up, let it build, send an email full of courage and vulnerability, and then start over.
5. Recognize you may not get a response that has concrete answers.
There is so much uncertainty within the world of publication – the relationship you have with the people who are interested in helping you meet your goals should not have that uncertainty.
While no one can predict how the world of publishing will continue through 2020 and what it will look like when it emerges, YOU still have the right to know what these people are feeling in regards to your writing. And if you aren’t certain if what you are sharing has the appropriate tone, ask a trusted confidant/friend/spouse to do a read-through for you.
For many writers, these kinds of moments have made them realize that the relationship they have with their agent or editor isn’t what they thought it was. That is a whole other blog post for another time.
But remember, you and your writing support team are working together in a professional partnership. If the relationship you have with your agent/editor is as strong as you’d like it to be, vulnerability and courage will reward you with peace of mind, and that is priceless.
How have you approached tricky conversations with your agents, editors, or critique partners?
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Tasha Seegmiller believes in the magic of love and hope, which she weaves into every story she creates. She is an MFA candidate in the Writing Program at Pacific University and teaches composition courses at Southern Utah University. Tasha married a guy she’s known since she was seven, is the mom of three teens, and co-owner of a soda shack and cotton candy company. She is represented by Annelise Robey of Jane Rotrosen Agency.
By Laura Drake
Having a hard time sitting in that chair and watching that cursor blinking at you? You are not alone. I’m afraid. Every. Single. Day.
We make excuses, like:
- No time – I have a busy life!
- Classes – I don’t know enough
- Research – I don’t know enough
- Too many plot ideas
- Not enough plot ideas
- No writer space – people keep bugging me
- I will. When…
- Never finish
- Edit – fo-evah
But honestly, don’t those excuses most often boil down to, ‘I’m afraid’? I know it does for me.
We’re afraid of success. We’re afraid of failure. We’re afraid to look stupid.
Let’s play, shall we?
Imposter syndrome Test
- Not at all true
- Very true
Choose your answers write down the number of your response.
- When people praise me for something I've accomplished, I'm afraid I won't be able to live up to their expectations of me in the future.
- At times, I feel my success has been due to some kind of luck.
- Sometimes I'm afraid others will discover how much knowledge or ability I really lack.
- When I've succeeded at something and received recognition for my accomplishments, I have doubts that I can keep repeating that success.
- I often compare my ability to those around me and think they may be more intelligent than I am.
- If I am going to receive a promotion or recognition of some kind, I hesitate to tell others until it is an accomplished fact.
Add up your results.
12 or less, you have few Impostor characteristics
13 to 18, you have moderate IP experiences
19 to 24 means you frequently have impostor feelings
24 and above means you often have intense Imposter syndrome.
Okay, hope you did better than my 26.
Let’s talk about tools to get around the fear.
Recognize the benefit of being a novice. Think about a preschooler; what do they do when they make a mistake? They don’t think it’s their failure. They just try again.
Focus on Learning, not performing. Be a preschooler – not a junior high schooler. People expect you to make mistakes! Take advantage of this and make all you can!
Behave as if. This is one of the forces of the Universe. I made an entire career by doing this.
I’m always surprised when people tell me that I’m a calm head and a problem solver. Because I’m not. I’m just keeping a calm exterior, and paddling like the devil, underneath. And you know what? It works. I can always do more than I think I can. And acting like I know what I’m doing not only convinces others – more importantly, it convinces ME.
- Positive self-talk – Whether you know it or not, you already practice this, but it may be the wrong kind. ‘I’ll never get this/God, I’m stupid/what was I THINKING?!’ Most of us talk worse to ourselves than we EVER would to someone else. And that’s just jacked-up. Your brain believes what you tell it.
- Pay attention. Correct yourself. Out loud (if you’re not in public). It may seem all woo-woo but try it. It’s a powerful tool.
Analyze opportunity cost – I was a Corporate CFO in my other life. Definition: the loss of potential gain from other alternatives when one alternative is chosen. Ex: Choose to retire – good things but giving up potential opportunities and $.
- Write a list of what you have to gain by finishing.
- Write a list of what you have to lose. Because there are things you’ll lose: family time, other hobbies, reading, sleep!
- Compare the two and decide. At the least it will show you more about your fear.
Focus on Small goals – First goal is to finish – because if you don’t, the rest doesn’t matter. It’s a mistake to look too far ahead. You end up worried about rejections, when you don’t even have anything to submit yet!
Make a list of small goals – finish a chapter, make an outline, write 2 days this week.
“The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough. They’re there to stop the other people.”
Do you have fear of success? Fear of failure? Imposter syndrome? What questions do you have for Laura? She's answering them down in the comments section!
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Laura is blogging writing craft and inspiration on her website. You can sign up to get posts in your inbox, HERE.
Also, who can't use some humor, beauty and wisdom right now? (not to mention snark) Come join Laura and her buds on the Facebook Group, Laura Drake's Peace, Love, and Books.
Click here to pre-order Laura's Book: Cowboy For Keeps
by Alicia Ellis
Have you ever had that spark of an idea that made you itch to sit down and create? Where does that come from, and can you get it on demand? This post is an actionable guide for obtaining your spark and fanning it into an amazing and useable story idea.
For me, ideas stem from curiosity. When I see something interesting, I ask, “What if?”
You must create opportunities to ask that question. Don’t wait for them to hit you in the shower.
It’s important to know what gives you that initial spark of interest to dive into creating a new story. You might already know what sparks you, or maybe you don’t. Is it the protagonist? The setting? The conflict? The technology? The magic system? The theme? A combination of these or others?
If you’re not sure, think of your favorite stories and describe them in a sentence or two. Don’t craft a pitch. Rather, I’m asking you to do this off the top of your head. If you’re telling a friend how much you love a book or movie or TV show, and they ask what it’s about, what’s the first thing about the story that you describe?
For instance, let’s use Twilight as an example because most people at least know what it’s about. You don’t have to love Twilight for this exercise to work, so just go with me either way. How would you describe this movie/book?
Is it about the conflicts in a relationship between a human girl and a vampire boy? If you think so, then I’m guessing it’s a great relationship that gets your wheels moving. There are all kinds of relationships: friendships, siblings, parent-child. Not all relationships are romances, even though the primary one in Twilight is.
Is it about a girl stuck in a love triangle between a vampire and a werewolf who are sworn enemies? Maybe it’s the internal conflict you love—the complexities inside us that can make a character intriguing.
Is it about human-drinking vampires who obsess over a girl protected by human-friendly vampires? Maybe you’re more drawn to an external conflict.
Is it about vampires blending in with humans in a town that gets hardly any sun, where the vampires can hide it in plain sight? Maybe you love a great setting that establishes the tone for a story.
It’s about a girl who falls in love with a sparkly vampire who doesn’t die in the sun. You may be drawn to a magical or science-fiction idea. (This is me, by the way.)
Break out a few of your favorite stories (and a few you don’t like) and describe each one in a sentence or two. You might learn something about what gets you excited about a story.
Go Find Your Spark
Don’t wait for inspiration to strike you in the shower. Go out and actively grab it.
You don’t have to literally go anywhere to do this. You can subscribe to content that might inspire you, turn on the television to watch a show or a movie, read a book, or watch the people around you. I get inspired by a new magical or science-fiction concept.
To stay inspired, I follow a number of content-providers, like NASA, who provide what I need, and I often leave the television on the Science Channel in the background.
Where is your inspiration? Go get it.
Ask “What if?”
When you encounter something that makes you lean in and pay attention, roll with it. Question what’s behind it. And have fun with it. You’re a storyteller, after all.
If you get that spark from a great relationship, focus in on the ones around you, the ones you see on TV and in movies, and the ones that come across your Facebook feed. If you see an interesting relationship, ask yourself what’s happening when they’re in private or when they’re away from each other. Are they really what they appear to be? What are they hiding? What are their insecurities? What brought them to this moment? Make it up. Make it outrageous.
If internal conflict drives you, ask yourself what people are thinking. Imagine that a minor character in a story you’re consuming has a conflict of his own. What brought him into this scene, and why is he upset about being there?
If you’re ever disappointed with the ending of a story, or if you predicted wrongly about how it would end, ask what you would have done differently. How would your way have changed other parts of the story as well?
Here’s a personal example: My new release, Girl of Flesh and Metal, features a teenage girl with an artificially intelligent cybernetic arm, … and the arm may or may not be causing her to kill people in her sleep. (You’ll notice from this description that my focus is on the big tech thing rather than on, say, character or internal conflict or relationships. There’s obviously more going on the book itself, but my description demonstrates what sparks me.)
I read books that have big tech ideas in them. Before I started growing this book in my head, I read Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot. It’s basically a collection of connected stories that center around artificial intelligence and around three laws that all artificial intelligence must follow. The laws are meant to ensure that robots protect and obey human beings, and the stories are about how robots interpret those three laws in strange and dangerous ways.
You know how, when you read a great book, it stays with you? It sits in your brain, emerging to the surface when something reminds you of it. I, Robot did that.
Months later, I was watching an online video about robotic prosthetics (because I subscribe to science-y content to ensure I encounter things that give me the spark).
While watching the video, I thought, “What if?” What if the robot prosthetic does something other than intended? What if it’s unpredictable? What if it breaks Asimov’s three laws or interprets them in an unexpected way?
That was the first seed of my story. And all I did to get there was read a book, find a video in my Facebook feed, and ask a few questions. It wasn’t luck; I set myself to be inspired by knowing myself, subscribing to the right content, and being curious.
Make It Hurt
What’s a story without conflict?
You know what inspires you. You were curious. You asked questions. Now, you have your story seed—that thing that excites you.
This is the fun part: someone has to suffer.
Because we want to create conflict, the next step for me is to decide: Who would this hurt the most? For Girl of Flesh and Metal, that led me to create my protagonist, a teenage girl who detests artificial intelligence despite the fact (or maybe because of the fact) that her parents own the biggest technology company in the country. She didn't choose to have the cybernetic arm; her parents installed it while she was in a coma.
For me, the high-tech idea comes first and gets me excited, and the character comes second. That allows me to choose a character who will suffer the most in the situation I've created.
For you, it might be something else entirely. Maybe you come up with the character first and grow the story from there. Ask what's the worst thing that can happen to this character. If you have a great setting, ask who would be conflicted about being there. It's that creative inspiration that sparks your story idea.
Once you have your spark, make it hurt.
Your Homework Action Items
1. Figure out what aspect of a story inspires you to dig in and write.
2. Subscribe to and consume content that will put inspiration in front of you.
3. Ask “What if?”
4. Fill in the gaps with conflict.
5. Have fun.
What resources do you use to spark story ideas? What type of idea will spur you to commit to an entire story? Feel free to share the details with us down in the comments!
A note of thanks from the WITS Team!
This is the 1500th post here at Writers In the Storm. What a glorious journey it has been to build this community with all of you. Thank you for reading! And how fun that we are celebrating such a milestone with Alicia, our newest contributor! Please give her a warm welcome.
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Alicia Ellis decided to write books about ten minutes before graduating law school. She's now an Atlanta attorney, but she moonlights as an author, electronics junkie, and secret superhero. With degrees in computer science and a healthy diet of pizza and fiction, Alicia loves all things high-tech and unreal. She writes fantasy and science fiction for young adults.
Girl of Flesh and Metal
Lena's cybernetic arm was supposed to help her—not turn her into a monster. Now, she's stuck with it, and her friends are terrified of her.
And maybe they should be.
The arm’s artificial intelligence takes Lena’s thoughts to the extreme. It acts when she doesn’t tell it to, even when she’s asleep.
Ever since she got the new limb, she’s been sleepwalking and waking in odd places. To Lena, this is just another example of how CyberCorp—her parents’ company and the manufacturer of the arm—screws up everything.
As the rollout of CyberCorp’s new android approaches, a murderer targets children of the company’s employees. And thanks to her sleepwalking, Lena doesn’t know what she was doing during the murders.
When the evidence points to her, Lena decides to prove her innocence—or her guilt.