In a few more weeks, I’ll have the pleasure of teaching a new crop of novel and essay writers. In novel writing, after we discuss writing your draft with abandon, we shift over to the three magic questions. They’re magic because although they represent a formula, it’s a variable formula that is crucial to any story. The answers to these 3 questions are often a predictor of how high the stakes are in the story, how engaging your lead character is and the level of emotion in the story. You can use these questions as scaffolding for your story’s plot.
Writing Tip for Today: So what are they?
- What does your lead character desperately want more than anything? Notice the question doesn’t say, “kinda sorta want if it works out.” No, this goal should be at the top of this character’s list. If the lead character doesn’t want this goal in a profound way, it’s harder to get the reader to care about that situation.
- What stands in this character’s way? This is the conflict, obstacle, or mountain which prevents your character from simply realizing the goal. Obstacles can be people, Nature, even weather or the character’s own self. Caution: If the main obstacle is the self, be prepared to either balance that “inner conflict” with a more overt threat or be very skilled.
- What is your character willing to do to overcome obstacles and realize the goal? Many students respond, “Why he’s willing to die!” when dying isn’t anywhere in the picture or else it’s inappropriate. Why would a character risk his life over whether or not he wins the lead role in the school play?
Try This! Answer the above questions for your work-in-progress (WIP). Now, think of a way to raise the stakes of the story, either by making the want more desperate, the goal more important or the obstacles higher or all three. How does this change your story?