Three Great Story Crafting Tips

The funny thing about writing fiction is that the more you know about making your stories good, the harder it gets to write them!

Here are some of the best writing tips I have learned and implemented recently, along with the great resources where I found them.  These have really revitalized my writing habits and brainstorming abilities!  I hope some of them might benefit you as they have me.

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This is probably the most epic picture ever taken of my sister and me (though not characteristic of our relationship at all!).

1.  The antagonist is everything.

Every story needs an antagonist.  If no one provides opposition to the main character, they will get what they want with no struggle – and hence, there won’t be a real story.

People hear the word “antagonist” and automatically think “the villain”, but the antagonist is not always an evil villain.  The antagonist is whoever is most opposing the protagonist in his/her goals!  They can, in fact, be a very good character who simply stands between the protagonist and what they want most.

I thought my book’s problem was that it lacked a “big baddie”.  It’s never had one.  After lots of fruitless brainstorming and playing with very contrived concepts, I finally realized that of all dangerous people and dangerous things in this story, the primary antagonist is the main character’s beloved younger sister, his fellow protagonist.

What?!  How?

It’s because the protagonist’s goal is to protect his sister at all costs…and she keeps putting herself in danger, darnit!  All the threats and dangers in the story – the snarky girl station guard with the robotic arm, government officials who wipe the sister’s memory, the evil army of invading aliens, the overly anxious auntie – they are only side-antagonists that also threaten to take his sister away from him in one way or another.  But she herself is the primary antagonist, and it was right in front of me all along.  Now I can really take this story’s plot arc and make it strong!

Chances are if you can’t identify or create the antagonist for your story (which is something you need to do, no excuses!), you might simply be looking at the wrong people.  What is your protagonist’s main goal, and who is getting in the way the most?  If no one’s getting in the way, who can you put in the way?

Definitely see Kristen Lamb’s blog for this post and many others on this subject of antagonists.

2.  What your protagonist wants is probably not what he/she needs.

” …we know that characters often work not toward the real solution but to a perceived solution. And characters frequently grapple with a problem that is ultimately recognized as only a symptom of the real problem.” – Melanie Anne Phillips and Chris Huntley

If a character doesn’t have a powerful goal…again, no story.  People prancing aimlessly through life are not interesting to read about.  So “find your character’s greatest want” is one of those rules guidelines writers are regularly given.  It’s always a great moment for me when I figure out what a character wants, because sometimes I have to get to know them for awhile before I can see their deepest desires.  But I learned this week that usually what the character wants most is a band-aid on their real problem, which is a soul problem, a lie they believe about the world or themselves.

(See K.M. Weiland’s character arc series for more on want vs. need, and the Lie a character believes, and otherwise amazing tips on character arcs.  Excellent, excellent stuff.  The link goes to the last post in the series, so scroll down to the bottom of the page to find the list of all the series parts.)

You could say most characters have an idol.  Their goal is to get or keep that idol (which may, in many cases, be a legitimate need or a good thing, like surviving – or in my book’s case, protecting one’s sister from harm).  But by the end of the story, whether their goal is achieved or not, the idol should be torn down.  They should have exchanged the lie for a truth, and that is a compelling and strong journey of character development.

I once read that a Christian can identify an idol in their life easily.  It’s whatever thing you can look at and say, “If I don’t get that, I will die.”  Only God should stand in that spot!

In the past I’ve been prone to thinking my characters are so godly that they truly do want God most of all!  What else could they want so badly?  …And that’s where I fail, because my characters end up A.) unrealistically lacking in flaws and therefore probably not even human, and B.) boring, because they have no tangible goals, so readers have no reason to root for them to win.

Goals aren’t all bad.  I’m using the word “idol” mostly as an illustration.  Your character must want something desperately, but what he wants is probably not what he actually needs, just as our idols are flimsy patches over the gaping hole in our hearts that should be filled by God.  By the end of any story with a happy ending, the protagonist’s real need should be filled regardless of whether he achieves his perceived need on top of that.

And on the topic of “If I don’t get that, I will die…”

3.  The stakes MUST BE DEATH!

What will happen if your protagonist does NOT achieve his or her goal?  If nothing in particular will happen except a little disappointment and then life goes back to normal…you’re doing it wrong (and so have I, many times).

In order for readers to care about your protagonist, death must be the consequence if the goal is not achieved.  And I’m not talking about stabbed-through-the-heart physical death exclusively.  Maybe they’ll die on the inside, psychologically – or maybe the consequence will be professional death, the destruction of their career.

Once the plot gets rolling, the protagonist must never get the same normal life back again.  That ship has sailed.  Either he returns to that normal world changed by his development from lie to truth, or he dies – physically, psychologically, or professionally, or in more than one of those ways.

Obviously my book revolves around a war in another universe, so death is a literal threat to both protagonists.  But as for my protagonist’s goal of protecting his sister, psychological death is also on the line for him because losing her will prove him inept in his responsibility to take care of her.  As the last remaining member of his family, she means everything to him, and he must not lose her even though everything in his life is dragging her away.  Ahhh, the stakes are high, exactly as they should be!

This tip about the three kinds of death is something I learned a few month ago from the book Conflict and Suspense by James Scott Bell.  That is seriously one of the best how-to writing books I’ve ever read – go get it!

I have to add that I found ALL of these resources through the direct or indirect recommendation of my author friend Kessie!  While you’re getting Conflict and Suspense you should check out her book too, because it’s awesome and I love it muchly.  😀

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What is the best tip you know about crafting a good story?

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6 Comments

  1. The best tip I was ever given was a challenge from my dad. He said, “Try to never say something like anyone else has. Don’t use any cliches, don’t describe red hair like the ‘hue of a carrot,’ or a baby’s cry like a ‘high-pitched siren.’ Describe things in ways no one has but as as accurate and vivid as you can make them.

    That’s not really a plot tip, but a prose tip. 🙂

    Reply
  2. netraptor001

     /  June 5, 2014

    I’m so glad these tips have helped you so much! I’m chewing on a story idea right now, and I’m trying to figure out an antagonist. It’s so tricky!

    Reply
  3. K.M. Weiland

     /  June 5, 2014

    Great post (and pic)! Thanks so much for linking to my character arc series. I’m so glad you enjoyed it!

    Reply

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