Thursday, August 5, 2010

Building a Story

Ideas for stories come in many different forms, but I sometimes struggle with converting those ideas into an actual story. Often what happens is that I picture a scene that intrigues me, but I don’t know where it fits or what I can do with the characters. Even with an outline framework, I began to question what part I should figure out first. As I considered this, I realized that there are five basic elements to every story, a character, a problem, a solution, a challenge and a victory. If we can determine each of these then we have our story.

A Character

The character is your protagonist. Sometimes you’ll know who this is at the first and sometimes it is better to wait till you determine the other four before deciding on the character.

A Problem

Your character begins the story with a problem. This isn’t the hook or the initial disturbance, though those things may help to show what the problem is. The bigger the problem is the bigger the story. If you’re talking to a friend, you might talk about running out of milk. If you’re writing a novel you’ll want a bigger problem, such as a murder that takes place. Of course it has to be a problem for your character. We hear about murder all the time on the news. We don’t like that it happens, but unless we’re the police or it’s someone in our family, it isn’t a problem and it doesn’t give us a story. Same with the milk. If someone else runs out of milk, we don’t care.

A Solution

So you ran out of milk and went to the store to buy milk. That is your solution. If a character is accused of murder, his solution might be to find out who the real killer is. The solution is an upside down version of the world we see in the problem. You’re at home, open the refrigerator and there’s no milk. Turn that upside down and you have that you’re not at home, you have milk and you’re going to place it in the refrigerator.

A Challenge

Having no milk, you go to buy milk, but as you’re leaving you run into the most talkative person in town. Your character had a solution that seemed to work, but now he’s standing in the hot sun with someone who won’t shut up. The milk is sure to spoil and he’ll be out of milk again. Every story needs a challenge that threatens to keep our solution from working. In a murder mystery, the challenge may be that the person we thought did it has an alibi or turns up dead himself.

A Victory

This could also be a defeat, but because the character has a challenge to his solution to the problem, he needs to have something that will allow him to face the challenge and hopefully win. For our milk story, the victory can be that the character pretends to get a phone call and excuses himself so he can get home with the milk. For a murder mystery, the character might break into someone’s home to find the evidence he needs to discover the truth and clear his name.

Putting it Together in a Story

You might not realize how open we do this every day. You ran into that talkative person at the store and it frustrated you. You’ve got to get it off your chest. To do that, you want that person to understand why you’re frustrated. Instead of just saying, I ran into Talkative Tina at the store, you back up and tell why you went to the store and what you bought. Now when they hear that Talkative Tina stopped you in the parking lot, they’re wanting to know what you did. With every story, we start with something we want people to know and we fill in the gaps.

Given that you have a fragment of a story idea, ask yourself which of these things it is. I had a scene in my head where Sara discovered a corpse. By its nature, we know that this is either a problem or a challenge. Because Sara didn’t know who this person was, I knew that this was part of the problem. But maybe our scene idea is of the character removing the toe tag from a corpse. That might be a solution scene. Given that knowledge, we might ask what problem the character might have that would induce him to remove the toe tag. Then we might ask what challenge to his solution he must face and what the final victory he hopes for is. With that, we have a story.