Many writers will tell you that the most difficult part about writing a story is the plot itself: what should you write? I have long believed that absolutely anything can be made into a compelling story. It all comes down to how you look at it: how can you turn a situation in such a unique way that it becomes a story worth telling?
Recently, I released my first novel, “Like Melvin”, a Christian fiction piece. Though the story itself is of some length and complexity, it began with a simple thought, a single idea.
All stories begin as a spark; an image, a thought, a glimmer. It’s only once you fully explore the possibilities that a story begins to fully reveal itself. Once you have the first step, you just need to feel your way towards the next one. If “A” happens, then how does “B” happen? Here are the five steps in creating a story from nothing:
Step 1: Ask the Question
All stories begin with a basic question: “What would happen if…”
This question, in a nutshell, is the beginning point of every work of fiction. What would happen if a group of animals set up their own government? What would happen if a boy and a girl from feuding families fell in love? What would happen if four children wandered through a wardrobe into another world?
My inspiration for “Like Melvin” was born from a single question: What would happen if a group of actors discovered the production they were working on was being run by a madman? From this single question, I worked out a plot in my mind that became the basis for the story of “Like Melvin”.
So, if you are having trouble getting that initial “spark” of inspiration, ask yourself a question. If you decide it’s a question that you would like to find the answer to, you’re ready for step 2:
Step 2: Establish the Problem
All works of fiction revolve around a central problem, a dilemma that prompts the characters to search for a solution. In order to begin bringing your story to life, you need to establish the problem. What is the obstacle the protagonist must overcome? What is the dilemma that will force them to grow and change as a character to prevail?
Problems can vary in scale and intensity. A character doesn’t need to have a deranged killer pursuing them to have a problem. A dilemma as mild as a looming public speaking event can serve as an adequate obstacle provided that it prompts the antagonist to grow.
Step 3: Develop Your Protagonist
Now that you have your problem, you need a solution. You have created the dragon, now you need a knight.
You need a protagonist.
The benefit to working backwards from a problem is that in many ways it provides a rough outline for the protagonist. Instead of creating a hero and deciding what kind of challenge they should face, you have a problem and can now deduce what sort of character could solve it.
Suppose your problem is that an elusive thief is stealing valuable artifacts without leaving a trace. To combat this problem, you would need a character with a superior mind, some expertise in crime prevention, and possibly even distant connections to the criminal world.
You have an outline for your protagonist.
Step 4: The Flaw
Ironically, once you create a character who can solve the dilemma, you then need to establish why they cannot solve the problem, at least not immediately.
While this may sound confusing, it is important to realize that your protagonist should not possess the ability to solve the problem right from Chapter 1. If this were the case, the dilemma would be solved instantly and there would be no story.
With this being the case, it is necessary to equip your protagonist with some flaw, or weakness which they must overcome in order to “slay the dragon”. This may come in the form of a mentor, training, or things they experience throughout the course of the story.
Step 5: The Conclusion
Once the flaw has been established, it is simply a matter of discovering how your protagonist can overcome it. What pieces must fall into place in order for them to solve the problem? Once this is established, it’s simply a matter of letting the necessary events play out.
It’s important to keep in mind that a conclusion doesn’t have to be complete, or even entirely satisfying. All that is necessary is to show that the protagonist has overcome his/her flaws to the point where they can be presented as the solution to the problem.
As simple as they may appear, these five steps are all that are necessary to creating a workable plot from nothing. All of the “extras”, ie additional characters, supporting scenes, timelines, etc. can be established throughout the writing process. Often, once you have your plot established, the other pieces fall into place naturally. You have your initial question, the problem, the protagonist, the flaw, and the conclusion. Now you just need the little pieces that make it all flow smoothly.
When it comes to coming up with story plots, don’t stress yourself out by trying to come up with something complex or brilliant. Let yourself take a step back and start from scratch. Put all of the writing details and “extras” to the side. Simply ask yourself the question: “What would happen if…”