Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Guest Post + Giveaway: Stories Are Simple (Ryan Jacobson)

Stories are simple. Most of them do exactly the same thing—in their own, unique ways. This doesn’t mean that writing a story is easy, but it does mean that aspiring writers need not be quite so scared or intimidated by the big, bad “story.” You just need to understand what you’re trying to do.

And what is that? What’s this “same thing” I just mentioned? Well, it goes a little something like this: There’s this character. S/he suddenly has a problem. The problem gets worse…and worse…and worse. Then the character solves the problem (or doesn’t). The end.

That’s it. That’s a story. The truly brilliant ones do it with a few surprises and twists, but most storylines can be boiled down to two basic components: (1.) a character with a goal and (2.) conflict.

When I work with writing students, I tell them to start with a goal. What does the main character want to do? Destroy a precious ring? Get a guy to dump her in 10 days? Win the lead in the high school musical? Overthrow an evil galactic empire? The goal can be just about anything. (One of my favorite student stories was about two kids who wanted to buy a bag of Skittles.) But there’s a catch. In order for a story to work, the goal has to be really important to the character. More on that in a minute.

Next comes the fun part. Conflict is, quite simply, anything and everything that prevents the character from achieving the goal. That’s easy enough to add—whether your conflict is a blizzard, Darth Vader, an overbearing mom, a best friend who’s dating your character’s secret crush or an evil stick of butter. Writing conflict is great because this is where you get to let loose your inner monster (bwahahaha)! You get to make life miserable for your character. The trick is to keep cranking up the conflict throughout the story. Don’t let up. Don’t give your character an easy way out. Make the conflict/problem worse…and worse…and worse. I mean, even in Disney movies, there’s always a tear-jerker song just before things get better.

This brings us back to the goal. Why does it need to be really important to the character? Because if it isn’t, either the character will give up (boring!) or the story will not be believable (bad!). I mean, let’s say your character’s goal is to balance her checkbook. All of a sudden, a crazy man with a hockey mask and a chainsaw shows up and tells her to stop. Um, yeah, I’m pretty sure she’s going to stop. Right? As it stands, the goal isn’t important enough; it’s definitely not worth battling a crazy man with a chainsaw. Now, if she were racing to balance her checkbook to win Justin Bieber tickets, that’s another story…

See? That’s not so bad. Your story awaits. All you need is a character, a goal and problem. But remember, the evil stick of butter was my idea.

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