Last month I published my third novel, AndroDigm Park 2067. Much of my time since has been taken up with marketing with little time left for writing. But now it’s time to start thinking again about the next novel. I have two very different ideas I am currently exploring and it’s difficult to choose which. Any story idea is at best simply a seed. There’s a lot of a work that needs to be done before we can see if that seed can grow into something more interesting. One way is to do enough work to turn it into a story premise. That is, a brief overview of the story world, main character and story-line to be able to make an elevator pitch. My thoughts are, if I can’t convince myself the story has merit, there is precious little point in spending a year writing it. And an elevator pitch is a great way of testing it. Clearly, I’m not a Hollywood producer. Nor do I intend to ride up and down in elevators to test this. But I’m the type of writer that needs to find my story before I write it. And finding a great story premise requires a lot of thought and planning: weeks, hopefully not months.
Thinking through some of my ideas caused me to think about different story-lines and the story drivers behind them. The main driver in any story is a highly motivated protagonist who wants something badly and will go to extraordinary lengths to get it. The first Act of any story is all about the protagonist discovering the motivation and passion for what he/she wants and finding the courage to pursue a quest. In some cases it is thrust upon him/her. In others, he/she needs to be persuaded by others to follow the quest.
The spark that ignites this process is called the story catalyst. It’s also sometimes called the inciting incident although, as I’ve explained in previous blogs, the inciting incident can mean different things to different people. For me the catalyst or inciting incident is the moment in time when the protagonist is first confronted with the big opportunity, problem, or puzzle that will eventually become the central focus of the story.
I have been thinking about story catalysts. And I believe there are three types that fit three different types of protagonists.
- The opportunity. This usually fits with a protagonist that longs for something (or needs something) in their life when the story opens and by the end of the story they will have found it. An opportunity comes along and offers them the chance to escape from the status quo forever. For example, Erin Brockovich in the movie of the same name simply wanted a job to support her children. But when the opportunity arose she was driven to find justice for her pro bono case victims and in the process turned herself into a highly paid lawyer. In Star Wars, A New Hope, Luke longed to go to the space academy, but it was only after his aunt and uncle were slaughtered did he get the backbone to respond to the catalyst (Lei’s message conveyed by R2D2 ‘Help me, Obi Wan…’ ). By the end of the movie Luke has transformed from a shy farm boy into a hero.
- The problem. This type of protagonist may well be happy with their life when the story opens, but a big problem strikes that threatens him/her or his/her loved ones. The protagonist’s motivation here is to get back to the status quo before the problem arose. For example, in Taken the hero is driven by the need to rescue his kidnapped daughter from sex traffickers. In The Huger Games, Katniss volunteers for the games and faces almost certain death to protect her younger sister. Her objective was then to try to survive the games and resume her life in her District. Sometime these characters can transform and return to their starting world more confident and assured. For example, in Romancing the Stone, Joan Wilder (Kathleen Turner) transforms from a lonely writer to the type of heroine she writes in her novels and in the process wins the love of Jack Colton (Michael Douglas).
- The puzzle or mission. This catalyst usually fits the hero for hire. These heroes act out of duty and professionalism rather than from personal involvement with the victim or those at stake in the story. They are chosen by the role they play and the special skills they possess. Most detective stories fall into this category: for example, Sherlock Holmes, Colombo and Poirot are all professionals solving a problem. All-action heroes such as James Bond and Indiana Jones also fall into this category, as do law officers and military specialists. These types of heroes are brought in to do a job and they rarely transform during the course of the story.
Serendipity may play a part in the choice of protagonist where the catalyst is an opportunity of problem. Luke was fortunate to find R2D2 with the message from Leia. John McClain was unlucky to be visiting his estranged wife at an office party when the terrorists broke in. But in the case of the puzzle or mission, the detective or all-action hero is brought in to solve the case or complete the mission because they are the best at what they do.
The main driver in all these stories is what the protagonist wants. It usually falls into one of the following categories:
- To find or recover some object of desire. This is what Hitchcock called the McGuffin. Examples are: the Holy Grail, the Golden Fleece, the ark of the covenant, the plans to the Death Star, the thirty-nine steps etc.
- To prevent something bad from happening. For example, in Die hard John McClain (Bruce Willis) wants to stop the terrorists that have taken hostages in a tower block.
- To escape from somewhere or some condition.
- To achieve something (e.g. to climb Everest, to become the world Champion, etc.)
- To solve or redress some injustice. For example, Richard Kimble wants to prove his innocence in The Fugitive. Most detectives want to catch the criminal and find justice for their victim.
- To win or resolve some relationship (e.g. Most love stories are about finding the person that completes them although at the outset neither of the parties will know or acknowledge this.)
Alongside what the protagonist wants is why he/she wants it. For example, they may be driven by love, duty, justice, self-preservation, passion, curiosity or glory, or they may be driven by less admired qualities such as self-interest or revenge. Even heroes are not perfect and their motives may change during the course of the story.
Finding the protagonist’s story objective and motivation are key aspects of understanding a story. But it is also important to understand the antagonist forces that will oppose him/her from reaching their objective. Without opposition there is no conflict and without conflict there is no story. Fear of what antagonists may do is also one of the principal sources of tension in a story — the source of most surprises and excitement. Understanding the antagonists is therefore part of understanding the story. Truby suggests there should be about four antagonists in a story. Although an antagonist force doesn’t have to be an enemy or even a person. It could be a force of nature, or someone close to the protagonists that thinks they are acting in their best interest, or the protagonist’s own shortcomings. Anything that blocks a protagonist from reaching their objective is an antagonist. In a love story the antagonist is normally their opposite love interest.
So, the first stage of turning an idea into a working story premise is finding the story driver — what the protagonist truly wants and why he/she wants it. It sounds simple, and it is. But there are thousands of story-lines that have been written and re-written with the same story drivers. The real difficulty is finding a combination of character, driver, motivation, and antagonists that appears new and exciting to the reader. That is a big challenge for any new writer.