A character with a problem.
Every story is about a character trying to deal with some sort of difficulty. Characters who have happy lives, who are content with their lot, and who have achieved their goals are not good fodder for fiction. The people we read about are people in trouble.
The central problem.
Most genre stories can be thought of as revolving around some central problem, or problems. The central problem(s) can be considered to be, in some sense, what the story is “about.” Will the mystery be solved? Will the protagonist survive? Will the rebellion succeed?
Begin with a crisis…
Whatever the length you’re dealing with, short story or novel, you want to begin with a character in crisis. The reader should find characters in difficulty within the first chapter, the first page, and ideally, the first paragraph. Structurally, it may not be possible to have the story’s main problem begin on the first page, but every story should begin with some problem, often with the first line.
…end with a resolution.
If the story is organized around a single central problem, it ends naturally when you’ve resolved that problem. If the story deals with a series or complex of problems, it ends when the last problem is dealt with, or when all the problems identified as most important are solved. A story can persist as long as there are problems to deal with.
The central problem and its context.
A story is SF when the central problem dealt with by the characters is a science-fictional idea, or when the central problem is resolved by science-fictional means. This means that if the SF elements are removed from the story, either the central problem, or its resolution, will cease to exist, causing the story to collapse.
“If it’s a western, it ain’t SF.”
It is by no means a consensus, but there is a large body of thought that says that a story has to have more than an SF setting to be SF. In other words, if the characters and plot can be successfully transplanted to a non-SF setting, it isn’t really SF. If all you’re doing is setting a western in a post-apocalyptic setting, you’re probably better of simply writing a western.
Cause and effect. Stimulus and response.
Plot is the structure of events within a story and the causal relationship between them. There is no plot without causality. “Captain Stronghead piloted his spacecraft to Proxima Centauri,” is an event with no plot. “Captain Stronghead piloted his spacecraft to Proxima Centauri in order to escape the despotic regime on Earth,” has the beginning of a plot.
The causal chain.
The plot of a story is a chain of events, each event the result of some prior events, and the cause of some subsequent events. The plot of a story will extend beyond the bounds of the story itself.
Things get worse.
Up until the resolution of the story’s central problem (or up until the resolution of the most dire of the story’s problems) the situation should steadily get worse— or more difficult— for the protagonist. Even if the protagonist’s situation objectively improves, which happens in many “rags to riches” stories, the forces arrayed against the character should grow comparably in magnitude. If the protagonist picks up a bat, the antagonist should pick up a knife. If the protagonist picks up a knife, the antagonist should pick up a gun.
The active protagonist.
Not only should the difficulties increase steadily until the climatic moment when the central problem(s) are resolved, but the difficulties should be increased as a result of positive action by the protagonist. Your characters should not sit by and watch the world fall apart, doing nothing. The characters in your story should have an active part in destroying the world around them. Every attempt to solve a problem should make the problem worse, or create a new, more tenacious, problem. Problems can worsen without interference by the characters, but the characters should always be doing something about the problem(s), and what the characters do should worsen— or at the very least, change— the problem(s) they are trying to solve.
Complicate, Complicate, Complicate
Things getting worse is not a matter of simply increasing the magnitude of the problem. (Discovery of the fact that the asteroid about to hit Earth is 1500km across rather than 500km across.) Things getting worse in a story sense means a proliferation of new problems rippling from the old. (The realization that the technical failures in the escape spacecraft are the result of sabotage.) Complication means that the problem the characters were trying to solve is not quite the same as the problem they actually face.
Motivations, desires, goals.
Since plot is not just event, but the casual relationships between events, plot can not be isolated from character. Characters do things for reasons, and those reasons form an indispensable element of plot. Every character in a story desires things to varying degrees, and has personal goals in mind, some of which may not have anything to do with the central problems of a story. Whatever these desires and goals are, they form the basis for your character’s motivation to act. You want the characters within your story to be acting from these desires and goals, and not from the external demands of the plot.
Conflict with others.
A great source of difficulty for your characters is when their personal drives are at odds with the central problem in the story. A man whose highest ambition in life is to live a quiet life and raise a family is going to be torn if he is drafted into an army in the middle of a civil war. He will act differently than a man who has a hedonistic lifestyle and whose desire is simply to make each moment as pleasurable and exciting as possible. Placing these two characters together in a combat situation and they will start arguing immediately.
Conflict with self.
Perhaps the greatest source of difficulty for your characters, and the most emotionally satisfying when finally resolved, is when the characters have goals and desires that are mutually exclusive. If both goals are illustrated in the story, and are of comparable importance to the character, the character will be in a constant state of tension that can border on agony. Consider the family man above. Give him a strong sense of justice that has placed him in this civil war to battle against the atrocities that he’s seen the enemy perpetrate (perhaps his family was victimized, driving him into the war.) Give him and the hedonist an opportunity to capture enemy soldiers that’ve been committing such atrocities. Then have the hedonist begin committing similar atrocities upon the enemy soldiers. What does the protagonist do, is he after justice or revenge?
Certainty of threat.
The first basis of suspense is the foreknowledge that something bad is going to happen. The reader has to anticipate some event for there to be suspense associated with that event. A surprise bombing creates no suspense beforehand, but leads to suspense if it creates an expectation of future bombings. Often, in stories relying heavily on suspense, the reader will be given information that the characters don’t have. The reader will be told that a character’s car is wired to explode, and then will be given the time to think about the fact as the character walks through the parking garage.
Uncertainty of outcome. The author as evil bastard.
Suspense can be defused completely if the reader is convinced that the author is going to figure some way out for the characters in trouble. This why it is difficult to work up suspense over the fate of a character in any ongoing TV series. (How many times, for all the threats it endured on the show, was the Enterprise really in danger?) If you wish the reader to feel real suspense, you have to convince the reader that you, the writer, are an evil bastard that will, occasionally, follow through on your threats. This means allowing bad things to happen to good characters. If you let the car explode at least once, you let the reader know you could do it again.
Coincidence shouldn’t make things easier.
Sometimes you can get away with using an accidental confluence of events in a story, such as having otherwise unrelated characters be at the same place at the same time. You can get away with this in two cases. The first is when the fact of the coincidence is one of the initiating forces of the story. (The whole story is the consequence of this chance meeting in an airport.) The second is when the coincidence makes things worse for the protagonist. (The protagonist is trying to sneak out of the country, and the guy he bumps into is a reporter who recognizes his face.) Coincidences seem contrived and false when they’re used to help the character. (The guy in the airport is an old college chum who’s more than willing to loan our hero the two grand he needs for an airline ticket.) Remember, it’s not a coincidence if it is a logical consequence of prior events in the story. (Our hero’s at the airport because he has an old college chum who’s an airline pilot.)
Lay groundwork for your revelations.
To paraphrase the last point, most events should be a logical consequence of prior events. Mysteries should not be mysterious once solved, and surprises should not be surprising in retrospect. The solution of mysterious events (as in a classic murder mystery) or the surprising revelation, should be— as much as possible— the result of the bringing together of already known information with some final crucial element that brings the whole into focus.
Never withhold information the reader should know.
Withholding information from the reader is annoying. The reader should always have the following information unless there is a overwhelming reason not to provide it; the identity of the point of view character, where that character is and what that character is doing, and all the relevant background information known to that character that is needed for the reader to understand who the character is, where the character is, and what the character is doing. Holding back these basic elements of information does not create surprise, mystery, or suspense. It creates confusion on the part of the reader, and annoyance when the reader realizes there wasn’t a legitimate reason for the writer to be coy.
A problem resolved is a climatic event.
Whenever a major problem is resolved in some way, you have a climatic point in your story, a point of high tension and drama. When the problem is a major one, or the central one, the climax is comparably major. These events need to be given weight within the text comparable to the weight the characters give them. They need to be dealt with in fully developed scenes. There is nothing quite as dissatisfying as having a major problem in the story be dealt with off-screen.
The resolution should feel inevitable, even if it surprises.
This is the same point as “Lay groundwork for your revelations,” only more so. The resolution of your story can be thought of the ultimate surprise, the revelation of the central mystery. Even more than the smaller mysteries and surprises, the primary resolution of your story should be the logical coming together of facts and events known to the reader. Inevitability comes, like suspense, from foreknowledge.
Don’t dangle threads without dealing with them.
Lastly, when you raise a question or a problem in a story, do so with the intention of eventually dealing with it before the end of the story. Dealing with it can be as simple as an acknowledgment that the problem isn’t going to be solved within the space of the story, but the acknowledgment needs to be there or the reader will feel as if the writer simply forgot about it.
- Create a character.
- Give this character a problem to deal with.
- Imagine at least three different ways this particular character might possibly deal with this particular problem.
- Pick one (or more) of these options, and imagine at least three different ways it a) wouldn’t work, and b) would make the character’s situation worse. (Short of killing off the protagonist and ending the story.)
By doing this, you have evolved from a character dealing with a problem, to a character dealing with a worse problem that’s directly and causally linked to the first. This is all plotting is; the evolution of the character’s difficulties, through the story, until a resolution is reached.