The most critical question for any writer to ask

Susan DeFCreative Writing, fictionLeave a Comment

Recently I returned from teaching at the Writer UnBoxed conference in Salem, Mass.–and while I was there, I did something I’ve never done before with adults.

I built a story with my audience, live.

I did this because I figured after four full days of craft talks, the conference attendees needed another PowerPoint presentation like they needed a hole in the head.

Moreover, I did try to demonstrate something I really believe, which is that we all inherently recognize when a story makes sense, and when it doesn’t–and building a story live is probably the best way to show (not tell) the key role that character arc plays in that.

Got a story about a girl out to beat her academic rival for the title of valedictorian? The first thing you need in order to really make that story feel like a story is some emotional stakes around that goal–a reason why winning this title means so much to the protagonist.

Maybe it’s the fact that her mom was valedictorian of her class at this same high school.

The second thing you need is something standing in the way of that goal. Not just something standing in her way externally–though the machinations of the academic rival and her cronies, and that maddening software glitch that keeps our hero from being able to submit her final homework for a key class will both play key roles in the story.

To really make your story feel like a story you need something internal standing in the way of the protagonist achieving her goal.

Which is to say an internal issue that signals the beginning of a character arc.

Maybe that internal issue for this protagonist is imposter syndrome–the sense that she’s not as smart as her rival, no matter how much she might want to be.

That’s where a lot of writers stop, figuring that’s good enough, in terms of a character arc, to check off this box on a story.

But there’s a part two on this internal issue–a question it’s essential for novelists to ask themselves, if they’re really going to create a story that feels like a story.

A question you can’t answer with craft books or craft lessons alone, but rather, one you’ll have to answer based on your deeper knowledge as a human being, your knowledge of the human heart.

That question is: Why?

Why does your protagonist have this internal issue?

And what else does this connect to in the story, as far as the backstory goes?

On one hand, your protagonist might have imposter syndrome because she’s been bullied at school, made fun of for being different in some way.

But on the other hand, she might have imposter syndrome because she secretly believes that she’s not as smart as her mother, and never will be–that she cannot live up to her example.

Of those two options, the second one is going to be the stronger candidate. Because it connects through to the stakes around the protagonist’s goal: She wants to be valedictorian because her mom was, but she secretly believes she’ll never live up to her mother’s example.

That’s an approach that would set the author up for success, because it would help to answer the question of what this story was really all about, beyond the events of the plot: living up to our parents’ examples, and maybe mother-daughter relationships as well.

But here again, I challenge those I’m working with–whether it’s in a group and in person, the way I was at this event, or one-on-one with my coaching clients, over the phone–to go deeper, by asking the same question: Why?

Why does this protagonist believe she’ll never live up to her mother’s example? What events in her past led her to believe that?

Maybe it’s because everything seems to come easily to her mother; her mom has never leveled with the protagonist about the things she’s struggled with in her life, so the daughter believes the fact that she herself struggles for her academic achievements means that she’s just not as smart as her mother.

Over the course of the story, the events of the plot will push this protagonist to realize that’s not true at all. Maybe:

She comes to realize that her academic rival struggles too;

She comes upon her mother’s old journals, has a talk with her mom, and realizes that her mom has been glossing over her own academic journey;

And the way the protagonist overcomes that software glitch and succeeds in submitting her term paper, against all odds, shows her that she has a specific and different kind of intelligence from that of her mother, but not one that’s lesser than hers.

I share all of this just to illustrate one key thing–the same thing I wanted to illustrate to those who attended this conference:

It’s not until you uncover the real WHY beneath your protagonist’s internal issue when the story starts that you can really figure out what needs to happen in your story–or, at least, what those events actually mean.

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