The Absolute Basics


I was surprised by the number of people last month who were having trouble with the first step of writing—writing the whole story.

So you’re getting the Kindergarten level talk, in the hopes that you can spot where the problem lies.

So . . . at its simplest, what is a story, after all?

A story requires:
• One or more characters
• A problem that matters to them
• How they solve the problem
• What they are like after having solved the problem

That’s it.

Oh sure, depending on the length and complexity of the work there will be several attempts and failures, before they grit their teeth and give it their all. But let’s start with the absolute basics. Take out that story you’re having problems with, and let’s have a look.

Who’s the Main Character? Not necessarily the only POV character or even the only Protagonist POV character. But who is doing the heavy lifting in your story? Don’t lose track of that.

What is the problem? Why does it matter to the MC? It doesn’t? Well there’s a point you need to address. Sometimes the first problem is the tip of an iceberg, but make it matter TO THE GUY WHO IS GOING TO RISK ALL FOR IT! Do you just need to show the character’s motivation, or are you using the wrong character as your Main Guy Gal Person Sapient Being?

How is the MC going to solve the problem? Does he need to acquire knowledge, skills, equipment, clues? Does he need advice? Does he need helpers? Does he need to study the problem and understand it better before he can solve it? All these things are interesting adventures and the meat of the story. If you’re writing a Mystery, your detective has to go around asking questions, interviewing people, getting beaten up, following red herrings . . . A Fantasy? Must find magical items, companions, steeds, sword fighting lessons, whatever.

Make your character do some work! You can put in a whole lot of world building while getting your hero ready to go. Get some try/fail sequences in there. Nothing like failure to make the MC realizes he needs [fill in the blank].

Think of several ways a sensible person (or hysterical, if that’s what the MC is) would try to deal with the problem. Then have him try one and fail. Get more stuff/training, try the next way, and fail. And the next.

Don’t make winning easy. Make him or her have a desperate dark moment, an emotional crisis, followed by renewed determination to win/solve/escape or whatever. Maybe a whole new strategy is needed?

And then go out there and do it.

And then, after the Big Win, show the character more mature, better skilled, filthy rich, more confident . . . or just going back home. A story has to have an ending. It has to have a conclusion.

That ending is an important part of the writing process.

Figure out what it is going to be. This will give you something to aim at, while you write.

You may decide later that it’s unrealistic, and change it.

No problem.

But if you don’t have a clue, not even “Frodo drops the ring in the ocean, then goes home and lives happily ever after” you are going to have trouble aiming your story. When you decide, “Wait, the ocean won’t work . . . umm . . . oooo! Let’s melt it in a volcano! And it has to be *the* volcano deep in enemy territory!” you’ve at least already got him on the road and collecting companions, weapons, experiences, and magic dodads. You’ve described the world, the people, established the personalities of his companions . . . you just have to get off the river and hike for the volcano.

Then you have your MC after the Big Win. Or if he made the ultimate sacrifice, you show your other characters getting with life, and the big hole left that the character used to fill. But show the reader that he died for a purpose, and achieved it.

And that’s it.

Main Character. Problem. Solution. Aftermath.

If you are missing any of those, you’re mucking about with the trained and honed expectations of a reader’s lifetime of stories.

Now, here is an old post with some story type and basic plot information: Back the the Basics
Which may also help clarify your problems.

But the number one problem with never finishing writing a book, is starting editing before it is completely written. Rereading may be necessary if a manuscript has been tucked away for very long between writing sessions. But in most cases, reading the last paragraph or two is sufficient to get your mind back into the story.

And the second reason many manuscripts are never finished? Not enough time to work on it. Do you need to find more time, or just pull the plug on the greatest time sink on the Earth? Yes, the Internet.

Master it, use it.

If you have trouble leaving it, try writing away from access. Bargain with yourself. “Five hundred words every morning before _any_ internet at all.” or “I can only have a soda/coffee/tea/beer if I’m sitting at the computer, writing.” “News and weather with the first cup of coffee. Then it’s time to go to work.”

Whatever works.

Get out that “never could finish it” manuscript. Analyze it. Main Character. Problem. Solution. Aftermath.

You can do this. I know you can.

And the Promo:

If you’ve never read anything of mine, try this one, the first taste is only $0.99

Or my most recent book:

50 thoughts on “The Absolute Basics

  1. Current thing i am writing, basically is a former soldier has to go back into it, and uses the ‘retraining’ paradigm as an alternate to the ‘new soldier going through basic’ paradigm, in order to introduce the world. Really in the course of the story he has to turn from a soldier to leader and just maybe a hero to ‘win’ (for values of winning)

    1. Good description! I can feel the suckage for this poor guy in “has to go back into it.” So much worse when you know exactly what to expect.

    2. But what is the problem that has pulled him back into the military? Why does it matter to him? How is he going to solve/deal with/come to terms with it? Who will he be and what’s he going to do after he’s won?

      1. He can see the writing on the wall and expects hostilities to resume, and he’s rather volunteer now than be drafted later.

        1. That’s a little tepid. You might want to emphasize his love of country/homesick for the camaraderie in the military/hatred of the enemy . . . give him an emotional reason as well as the logical. Tie it into something like “jumped at the opportunity to rejoin as soon as the government voted to fund an expansion.”

          1. Mildly traumatized because of how badly it went last time, and determined that it go better this time?

            1. pretty much. There’s a reason a decorated war hero doesn’t talk about it kind of thing. I think its telling me it is the ‘WW2 vet goes to Korea” kind of situation, Still looking for someone to alpha read what i have, i don’t think i can pants something this deep.

              1. That guy does not want to go. You need to have a -good- reason, better than “King and country.”

                1. He’s ‘still on the selective service rolls’, and can tell they are only a short time from starting to call people up

              2. Knowing a direction might help. Decide what about him is going to be different in the last paragraph. And what will have to change to get him there. Then you have a landmark.

          2. its the way the story came to me… I don’t even have much world built around it yet. I woke up with two intact scenes in my head and wrote them down.

            1. And now you have to figure out the rest of it. One problem with writing is that what a real person would do in real life . . . avoids the sort of results that makes for a good story.

              The reader has to feel the characters’ emotions to really get into the story. The MC has to _really_ care about the problem, else the reader won’t care either. He’ll put the book down to do something, and never pick it back up.

              Or maybe the MC doesn’t care, maybe he’s just madder than hell. Maybe he’ll get seriously despondent after a couple of try-fails. But he has to pick himself back up and win.

              1. Agreed. What you have there looks like a recipe for gray goo, if you’re not *very* careful.

                Maybe he starts out that way and finds some–not enthusiasm, but a realization that there *is* a reason to go out there. Grim determination can work as well as excitement, if it’s done right.

                Or maybe he ends up being the Wise Old Man. I read once that a sergeant in WWII found his recruits were different–most of them didn’t really want to be here, and just wanted to do their duty and go home. The techniques used to “break and remold” weren’t quite as necessary when your raw material wasn’t full of their own “manhood.” He had to adjust again after the war, when the young punks were the majority again. If your protagonist were part of that transition…

                Or something else. The key, as Pam said, is to give your *reader* a reason to follow this guy. It doesn’t have to be heroic badassness–look at Juan Rico in STARSHIP TROOPERS. He enlisted to get the vote and impress the girls, and ended up stayoing for completely different reasons. You followed him to watch the growth and change. So how is your MC foing to change and grow?

  2. Basics, right. Got to remember the basics. Started one story with two POV characters. Realized after I was done that the real MC was something else and I had just finished the beginning. *thud*
    Which was good in a sense, otherwise it was too damned depressing.

    1. I guess it is hard to create a villain worth fighting and disposing of, if that part of the story isn’t depressing. Mine starts with a disgusting murder, which surely depresses the cop that has to solve it.

      1. Good point. I wrote it, stopped and looked at it and found it utterly depressing and shelved it. Fired it off to my Alpha Reader and she made a comment that took me in a direction that I didn’t think of. Now I just have to get back to the keyboard and see where the story ends up. Starts off as grim dark and I have to find the light.

        1. Try shooting it in the face. Something that grim and that dark, its begging to get shot. In Fiction Land, “He needed killin'” is a defense.

          Too big? Too grim? Get a bigger gun. Get friends with bigger guns, or make some if you have to. My lippy spiders have tiny fusion reactors in their stomachs and railguns that run the length of them. Ka-freaking-POW baby! That is a bigger gun.

          Really, there’s nothing that punctures the grim darkness like a lippy robot spider with artillery on board.

          Main character moping and pining for the fjords? Shooting something evil in the face will cheer him/her/it the hell up.

          Also, my mental health tip that I do for myself, if the thing being contemplated is too horrible to hold inside your brain, let the characters come along AFTER it happens. Or before. But not during. Some stuff is best left off-stage. Then we know about it, but we don’t have to live it. More to the point, -I- don’t have to live it.

          I’ve only got so many functional liver cells left, I am not going to burn them up over a plot device.

          1. Current major focus of effort involves child soldiers in an existential war. Grim Dark, right? I want to make it a comedy. So the introduction needs to weigh the barracks assignment brawling over the assassins and giant monsters.

            I’ve been challenged figuring out when I need to introduce problems, so I’ve been making another effort to read Pride and Prejudice.

            This thread seems to have gotten things lined out.

            The power of friendship compels ye, OPFOR. Cheerleaders in long skirts and heavy woolen overcoats make everything better.

            1. Pranking the assassins and monsters with Cheezwhiz. There’s nothing you can’t make funny with Cheezwhiz. I hope.

                1. That was the theme of M*A*S*H the book. How focussing on the funny bits kept you sane.

      2. There’s a line from the otherwise (IMO) highly mediocre movie “Bruce Almighty”: “If you want to paint pictures like that, you’ve got to use some dark colors.”

        The essence of story is conflict (something Stan Schmidt told me when I was first starting out). Things have to look bad, they have to be bad, to have a strong conflict. It’s how you end it that determines the story or not.

        The late Harry Harrison’s “Stainless Steel Rat” series was mostly rather lighthearted fare. But I’ll tell you, sometimes during those stories (particularly the second novel “The Stainless Steel Rat’s Revenge”) got intense enough that I nearly put them down. (Or perhaps I’m just a wimp.)

        As a general rule, the harder you make it on a character in the beginning and middle of the book, the sweeter the triumph when they come through in the end. But they have to earn it.

      3. Depress or anger? Where does he start, mood and age wise? Young and eager? Old and cynical? Middle-aged and depressed? The same disgusting murder will evoke different responses. Send him into depression or shock him out of it.

    2. I wrote a whole book before I realized the MC was totally under motivated, and that this other woman was the one with the real reason to care about the problem.

    3. I had a story idea I wrestled with for months and months before I realized that of the two characters, the other one was the main one.

      Fortunately, I can generally work these things out in the outline. I understand that not everyone can.

  3. “Main Character. Problem. Solution. Aftermath.”

    Easy for you, Pam! [hands on hips!]

    How about: Problem, sidekick thrashing futilely, then main character, then bigger problem! Oh shit, now it is -really- in the fan.

    Now possible solution, and more characters! But then they decide to have a holiday while the problem is still going because there’s some extra time and they want to fool around.

    Then Solution!!! finally, but nobody wants to be bothered because they’re busy having fun, but they finally drag themselves to the table and Solve The Crisis For Now! Yay!

    But cliffhanger because the Underlying Problem is still Lurking Out There, and they’re back to fooling around again.

    And now, the fourth book, I’m finally at Dangerous Solution that nobody wants to do because it is cutting in to their fooling around time. They are complaining at me that I make them work when the weather is nice and they should be getting a tan.

    1. Only four? I didn’t get to my Dangerous Solution til Book Seven!

      And then we discovered that the Big Problem We Just Solved was keeping a swarm of New Problems in check…

      1. Book Three was proper solution to the first problem, evil aliens will destroy the Earth.

        Book four is a new problem.

        Everybody thinks the Great Voids are eddies in the currents of galactic flow, or remnants of the Big Bang. Nope. Demons.

        You looked into the Abyss and it tried to eat you, pretty much. My girls are shooting the Abyss in the face as we speak. Ka-pow!

    2. Well, there, you see? You’ve got the try-fail sequences thing down pat. But don’t forget that they do have to realize there are more important things than goofing off at the beach! Make them weapon up and grit their teeth and jump all over the Bad Guy. _Then_ you can have them miss the award ceremony ’cause they were down at the beach and lost track of the time, dude.

  4. Dwight Swain in Techniques of the Selling Writer describes it as “The starting line-up”: A focal character, a situation in which the character is involved, an objecting the character seeks to obtain, opposition against that objective, potential disaster (from focal character’s perspective) from failure to achieve the goal. His recommendation is to couch it in two sentences, a statement presenting the character, situation and goal, and a question presenting opposition and disaster. Something like (from the book):

    Situation: Pursued by his boss’s amoral wife, Linda,
    Character: Steve Grannis
    Objective: decides to seek a transfer, so that his home and career won’t be destroyed.
    But can he escape when
    Opposition: Linda
    Disaster: swears that she’ll have him fired and ruined if he tries to leave?

      1. Basic, yes, but sometimes going back to basics is what’s needed to kick something loose, or to kick the author into getting off that now-sore duff and doing something.

      1. Its like a disease, Christopher. Some form of fluke, I imagine. Like that nematode thing that takes over the ant’s brain.

        1. The ophiocordyceps unilateralis fungus may be more apt than the myrmeconema neotropicum- the fungus is the one that infects the ant so that the ant then does it best to spread the fungus even though if it had any sense it would know that it was just spreading the spores? 😉

          1. I’m postulating a disease so clever it can take over the alleged brain of an SJW and make him talk to people he’s already banned from his own blog.

            A Von Neuman machine that replaces entire sections of soggy abused synapses with Babbage gears, perhaps.

            A possible example from Drudge today, journalists are subnormal:

            I hypothesize a similar study of SJWs will reveal similar lack of executive function. Future research will no doubt reveal the cause to be a disease transmitted by pink hair dye.

  5. Did the first one get a new cover? That doesn’t look familiar.

    And, yay! They haven’t stopped, yet 😉 Unfortunately, I must wait until Sunday to start reading it; too much to do before then to get sucked into a book.

    1. Yep, new cover. I’m not entirely happy with it, but I need to redo so many of the others that it’s going to have to do.

  6. The problem at the beginning is that the cult leader is dying. The problem neat the end is that the son of a bitch isn’t dead yet.

    (Just…a few… scenes… left…)

  7. Or the problem in the beginning is that The Signal Isn’t Supposed To Be There, and the twist ending that solves it is that It Was The Captain’s Fault….

    1. But think of all the attempts to fix the problem before that despairing moment of admitting failure! Hitting the wall with MC’s head. “I’ve tried everything! The only way the signal ought to be sent is by the command of the Captain . . . “

      1. Oh, it’s a LOT more curious than that! I just haven’t gotten the last scenes written yet. But the signal isn’t coming from their ship or even the bivouac…

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