To create a plot that will hold the reader’s attention from beginning to end, we need to begin at the tip of the iceberg, not at the summit, not on the downhill slope. We begin at the tip and then force out characters to go up, over and across the iceberg, not around it where the going is easy.
We make them face every dangerous moment as they traverse the obstacle that’s in their way. We don’t lessen the danger. We don’t send help. We don’t toss them a rope or put a ladder under their feet.
Start with what each of the characters in your story wants. Make sure it’s something they can’t achieve or acquire easily. It should be something they can’t ask another person for and can’t run out and buy. It took me a long, long time to realize that a character who doesn’t really want something—and want it badly—is next to impossible to motivate in difficult situations. As a result, I ended up putting those characters into contrived situations, and then wrote myself into very deep corners I had trouble getting out of.
To avoid my mistake, make sure your character wants something so badly he’ll do almost anything to get it. Make it something he aches for or something upon which his future, or the future of others, depends. The character’s motivation must be strong enough to propel the story forward, even when you’ve boxed him into a corner.
Does that concept make you recoil? Do you think it’s too extreme?
You want to write about simpler things. Stakes that aren’t quite so high. Passion that’s a little less ... passionate. Wants that are less earth-shaking, less life-altering.
But do you really?
If the people you’re writing about aren’t one-hundred percent committed to pursuing their goals, willingly or not, they’re going to be too easily discouraged when things get rough. They’re more likely to back down, turn away, give up, move on, shift goals, and go after something else until things get rough.
Once you give a character an out, he’ll probably take it. If he doesn’t, what comes next may feel contrived.
To write really compelling fiction, you must write about people who are completely committed. Passionate people who are willing to fight for what they want and keep going after it in the face of obstacles, right or wrong, wise or foolish. Just keep your idea in view, your motivation appropriate, and the people in your story behaving in character.
A word of warning (another lesson learned by doing it the other way): Characters who want to achieve a negative goal, to avoid something, to prevent something, to run from something, also make for unworkable (or very tough) fiction.
If you create a man who wants, for example, specifically, not to fall in love, anything you put into your plot that makes him fall in love is likely to feel forced. Why would a person who truly wants to avoid the opposite sex open the door, even a little, for that perky Heroine you’ve just shoved under his nose?
People who want negative goals (who want to avoid creating something new in their lives) don’t have to actually do anything to accomplish their goal. In fact, all they really have to do is keep doing the same thing they’re doing now. Creating a character arc for someone with a negative goal is difficult and painful because making that character move and change requires you, the author, to lie, Readers can always, always, always feel a lie, even if they can’t identify it as one.
Books about people who don’t change, move, grow, or step outside their comfort zones are generally not well received. Books about people who make changes, move, grow and step outside their comfort zones unrealistically also get a lackluster response from the reading public.
We want to read about someone with a problem he can’t avoid, a plan for getting around it, and the courage to take active steps toward succeeding with the plan.
Instead of having your romance hero wake up in the morning vowing never to fall in love again, let him want something instead—something that gets him moving forward. He’s accepted the fact that he won’t find love again, but he wants desperately to regain the respect he once had from people in his chosen field. Because he wants a positive (respect) rather than a negative (to not fall in love) he may reluctantly open the door for that perky Heroine he views as a negative because she offers the means to the end he seeks.
Thinking about your plot in those terms can give you goals for your characters, motivation that keeps the story moving, and believable conflict all in one!