How It All Starts: The Preliminary Work

How Do You Start the Story?

It usually starts one of two ways.

Way One is a Cool Character who can do stuff. Maybe you have a name for the character and some powers and abilities. You might even have a nemesis for Cool Character, and you might have some thoughts about his or her back story. But you don’t have an idea for THE STORY yet.

Way Two is an idea for a Plot. The Plot is pretty exciting, where stuff happens because of Thing that the heroes must find and destroy. Or maybe the heroes have to find the Thing and save it. In any case, you know a lot about the THINGS in the story, but you don’t know the WHOs yet.

Sometimes you get lucky and figure out both, the WHOs and the THINGS. And sometimes you even know the WHYs and How It All Ties Together.

But, for now let’s assume you have one or the other.

Way One

If you have Way One, that means you have a character, or a few characters, and you need a story. So, let’s start with three questions:

  • What does your character WANT?
  • What is STOPPING your character from having it?
  • Who or what does your character CARE about most?

When you learn what your character WANTS, you learn what motivates your character. The WANT can be simple, such as Frodo WANTS to get to Mordor to get rid of the One Ring. Or, the WANT can be complex, made of several connected WANTS, such as the various desires of the heroes in Avengers: Endgame leading to the collection of the stones to restore the universe’s population.

When you learn what is STOPPING the character from having what he or she wants, you learn the CONFLICT, leading you to your PLOT. The CONFLICT could come in the form of a nemesis, giving you a villain. It could come in the form of obstacles, fabricated or natural. Or, it could be self-induced, meaning your hero can’t get out of his or her own way.

When you learn what the character CARES about most, you learn what the character must sacrifice to achieve the WANT. Going to back to Avengers: Endgame, you have to admit that having Tony Stark sacrifice himself was pretty brilliant. I mean, in Iron Man, we learned what Tony cares about most is Tony. And he sacrificed himself to save everything in Endgame.

Once you figure these things out, you are well on your way to crafting your STORY.

Way Two

If you have Way Two, you have the idea for your story, but you don’t have your characters yet. So, just take some characters you’ve been tossing around in your head and plug them into the story. Or, come up with generic characters and let the strength of the story carry itself. Simple, right?

Well, not so fast. You can’t just swap characters willy-nilly or you will change the flavor of the story. And, as strong as your plot idea may be, your readers will connect the plight of the characters more than the events of the story.

You have to create characters that fit the story. Walter White has to be the lead character in Breaking Bad, just as Dorothy has to be the lead in The Wizard of Oz. Part of the character creation process will be reverse engineering the character to be a strong gear in the machinery of the story.

Jaws could have been a story where the author, Peter Benchley, had the idea (a rogue shark terrorizes a beach community during tourist season, threatening not only the citizens but the town’s economy) but didn’t have all the characters. The lead character he created, Chief Martin Brody, ultimately has to face and defeat the shark. Benchley adds an important piece to Brody’s character by making him uncomfortable in the water. So, among all the pressures Brody faces in the story (fighting the local government to shut down the beaches; taking the blame for the shark’s victims; having to work with Quint, who is obviously insane; the affair he knows his wife is having, but can’t prove), he has to face a man-eating force of nature while in the company of a lunatic and the man sleeping with his wife. All in a small boat. In the monster’s home turf, the ocean. And Brody hates the water. That’s compelling stuff.

Putting It to Practice

Workshop these things:

  • Who is your main character (looks, abilities, personality)?
  • What does your character want?
  • What is stopping your character from having it?
  • Who or what does your character care about most?
  • In a few sentences, what is your story about?
  • How does your character fit in the narrative?

Once you know these things, it’s time to start expanding the story. Remember, none of this is set in stone, and there are no wrong answers:

  • Do you have any other characters? If so, who are they, how do they connect to the main character, and how do they fit in the story?
  • Do you have a villain? Who is he or she, how do they connect to the main character, and how do they fit in the story?
  • Right now, where do you see the story ending? What will the main character achieve, and what will he or she lose?
  • What sort of obstacles do you see the main character facing along the way?

When you have all this information, you can write your first rough TREATMENT. That will be the subject of the next blog.

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Dave Philpott

Dave Philpott


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