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Building a Fantastic Story

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Thu Mar 14, 2013 2:59 am
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Master_Yoda says...

Building a Fantastic Story

Some Harry Potter spoilers are found below, so if you haven't read Harry Potter, do so before reading this.

A long time ago, I wrote my first article for the Knowledge Base, entitled: "Building a Story". If you built a story using that article as your basis, your story is probably fairly well constructed and standard. Since then, I have learned a great deal about story telling. The single most important lesson I have learned about story construction is that order to write a story that is truly great one cannot merely follow a guide.

This article is different from a guide. You will not find any recipe or any formula below. Nor will you find an algorithm describing how to arrive at ideas and craft them into a story arc.

Instead, I have haphazardly puzzled together an amalgamation of some of my strange epiphanies that caused a great shift in my approach towards writing over the years. I hope these ideas will help you learn to listen more closely to your imagination and turn your stories into truly magical works of art.

Secret # 1:

Very small ideas can grow into great and even beautiful stories.

Two of my favorite stories in YA fiction are Harry Potter by JK Rowling and Looking for Alaska by John Green.These books could not be any more different. The sheer scope of Harry Potter is epic what with the enormous and complex Wizarding World and the quest to save the world from a powerful Dark Lord who has defied death itself. Looking for Alaska on the other hand, is largely about an innocent teenage boy becoming fascinated by a badass girl. Hardly as consequential, but very beautiful nonetheless.

In fact, story telling in general is not really about plot at all. It is about taking a journey with a character. Strange characters who make strange things happen are intriguing because a story is not really about the story itself, it is about its reader. If you can take your reader on a great adventure you have succeeded as a storyteller.

Secret # 2:
Enigma is addictive.

In Harry Potter, JK Rowling literally uses enigma as her primary method of drawing you into her story. From the mysterious cat woman to the weird old man who puts out the streetlights in the first chapter, to the mysterious letters from nobody, to the announcement of a whole other world, to the exploration of that world, to the bank robbery at vault 713, to the mysterious Nicholas Flamel, JK Rowling is a master of using a long cycle of mystery after mystery to suck you into her world.

In looking for Alaska, John Green's entire premise is built upon this mysterious girl Alaska who is extremely strange. The whole book is at its core about trying to learn more about who this person is. John Green satisfies our apetite by providing little glimpses into Alaska's life that slowly form a picture, but the mystery and intrigue persists all the while, enticing as always.

Secret # 3:
Heroes must have character flaws, but villains can be purely evil.

There's a lot of talk about 3-D characters and how important it is to have your characters believable. If a character can shift alliance, it often indicates that he has endured enough to make him a real person. In fact, in A Song of Ice and Fire by George R R Martin, any character who has not switched alliances has pretty much ended up dead.

I have a somewhat different take on this whole idea. When reading, your reader is essentially slipping into the role of your protagonist. As humans we have no trouble painting our antagonists as pure evil, and so as a writer you can do the same. Unlike your villain, your hero cannot be strong, handsome, confident, sexy, and witty, because we all feel some insecurity. If your reader cannot sense your character's insecurities, he will not be able to slip into the appropriate role.

It is for this reason that heroes like Frodo Baggins can face off against faceless villains like Sauron. That Harry Potter can face off against Lord Voldemort. That Pogo the dalmation can face off against Cruella da Ville!

Secret # 4:
True conflict happens when a hero is faced with Hobson's choice.

You know those times when you're reading Harry Potter and Voldemort offers Harry the chance to join him and see his parents again? Did you ever, for one second believe that Harry would take Voldemort's offer? I certainly didn't.

When, on the other hand, Marietta Edgecomb betrays the DA, Harry Potter has something of a falling out with Cho Chang. He could have made up with her, but he didn't. To me, certainly, this was an instance of true conflict. Harry could have compromised on his principles or ditched Cho. Both were horrible choices to have to decide between, and the choice tugged at my heartstrings even as Harry made it.

Secret # 4b:

Even without true conflict, making choices is the only way a character can grow.

When Voldemort offer Harry the chance to join him, there might not have been much conflict, but Harry still needed to make his decision. When Hermione, not yet Harry's friend, gets locked in with a Mountain Troll, Harry needed to go and save her. Simply leaving out these choices is not an option as an author. Making the right choice strengthens ones character and teaches us something about ourselves.

Secret # 5:

All protagonists must have initiative.

There are some protagonists who act and there are others who observe. Your story cannot be told from the perspective of an observer. A reader wants to be a part of the action, not to be a spectator.

In Harry Potter, Harry is always acting to protect his friends or to find out new stuff. He does risky things like coaxing secrets out of Half-giant gamekeepers, or venturing down into the Chamber of Secrets. If a character is simply watching someone else's story unfold, you will lose your readers interest.

I once wrote a first scene about a character eavesdropping on a conversation. It was a very interesting conversation, but my character was not a part of it. It took me ages to work out what was wrong with the scene.

Secret # 6:

It takes two to tango.

After I changed my opening scene in the story I mentioned above, I ended up with a character running through the woods to meet a friend in secret. It was a far more engaging and active role, but the scene was still lukewarm. Eventually I came to this crazy realization: I only had one character in the scene. I added another character into my opening scene and my story came to life.

Readers are interested in drama, and it takes a minimum of two characters to dance the dance. There are very few great books which start with only a single character. I can only think of one or two myself.

With that, I'm going to conclude this article. I hope you are able to draw from this article and construct a fantastic story. There's a shortage of good stuff to read these days.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
-- Robert Frost

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Sun Mar 17, 2013 7:54 pm
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Rosendorn says...

Two points that stuck out to me:

Heroes must have character flaws, but villains can be purely evil.

Villains fail when the evil is not powerful and not tainted by cliches. "Evil" is more defined by how far they will go and loyalty than anything else. They can have people loyal to them but, in the end, pure evil villains are purely selfish. As soon as somebody is no longer of use to them, the person gets cast aside or killed.

A villain who is evil without any power to be a threat is nothing. To make a truly evil villain they must be just as carefully crafted as the hero, only the selfishness is at the root of their personality.

"Pure evil" is not an excuse to be lazy. "Pure evil" simply means they must be built totally differently.

Also, pure evil is an easy choice for the hero to make. They must kill them because, well, they're pure evil. It can be all sorts of fun when the villain has points of redemption just to confuse the hero. Pure evil at their core or not, having points of redemption can mess with both the hero and the reader, because it blurs the line between good and evil. Also can be ten times more chilling.

Your story cannot be told from the perspective of an observer.

I raise you Watson from Sherlock Holmes.

He was an observer, and his main point was to translate the brilliance that was Sherlock. Readers would have been lost had we gotten Sherlock's deductions immediately, because they would have choked the story.

I would call that a special case where the main character is simply too alien to be the viewpoint character. These do not happen often, but they do happen. And considering Sherlock Holmes' popularity, it is a valid technique if employed in the right scenario. It must be built into the premise from the start, but it is possible to be employed.
A writer is a world trapped in a person— Victor Hugo

Ink is blood. Paper is bandages. The wounded press books to their heart to know they're not alone.

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Tue Feb 04, 2020 6:53 pm
BluesClues says...

I thought immediately of Nick from The Great Gatsby, although Watson from Sherlock Holmes is probably an even better example! Nick, like Watson, is involved in the story but is not really the main character: the main character is Jay Gatsby. This retains the mysteries of Gatsby's origins and backstory; plus, since [spoiler alert] Gatsby dies in the end, it would be tough to tell the story from his perspective unless Fitzgerald wanted to do a "and then I died" (which can work but is really, really tricky).

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