Bam! Your new plot idea hits your mind like a package dropped on your doorstep by FedEx. You’re excited and eager to write, but then doubts start to nibble away your confidence. Is this idea any good? Is it worth working on? Should I do this? How do I know?
There are several criteria that I use when evaluating an idea for potential development. I start with this one:
Is there any change with consequences impossible to ignore?
I’m sure most of us have read or heard several variations of this standard writing principle. Start in the middle of things; start in the middle of action; start with a problem; throw your protagonist into trouble on the first page … etc.
Writers seek change for their characters because they know that change is threatening. Change upsets us. Change excites us. Change scares or worries us. Things will be different. Will we like that difference? What will happen?
Whether positive or negative, change signals that new challenges lie ahead. If I move to a bigger house and gain the extra space I need, will I get along with my new neighbors? Will my children have to attend a different school? What if the house affects Granny’s allergies? Can we afford the larger mortgage? What will we have to sacrifice? How far will it be to shopping and amenities? Will my commute to work be longer?
Avoidance of change keeps real people stuck in jobs they dislike. It keeps some teens from leaving home to go to college. It keeps some college students perpetually in graduate school. It keeps some folks in abusive marriages. It keeps others from taking risks to grow their business. Some writers are hesitant to branch out into different genres. Some artists dodge exhibiting their work.
Staying safe, staying where things are known, avoiding risk … all part of human nature. Yet fiction should sweep characters out into the unknown, forcing them to cope with challenges.
So can you think of an upheaval to launch your story? Of course you can! Be careful, though. It can’t be just any old kind of change stuck to the story with a piece of tape.
Example: Say that the story is about a couple having marital difficulties. Arthur Author doesn’t want to open with the pair sitting in the living room, glaring at each other. Too static! Instead, Arthur Author decides to open with the couple’s child — stressed by his parents’ spats — abruptly throwing his first tantrum on the carpet.
This is action, all right. There’s character movement. Little Johnny is breaking his toys, flailing, screaming, and turning very red in the face. Chances are the parents will give him the attention he wants and stop bickering briefly while they cajole or punish him. Once he’s in bed and out of the way, they’ll probably blame each other for his behavior and the arguments will start again.
There! Arthur Author is happy. He’s opened with a change and so he types happily for a few pages, only to wonder soon why his story is going nowhere.
What has Arthur Author done wrong?
He hasn’t written an opening of true change. There are no real consequences to the tantrum. The situation remains unaffected; status quo is maintained. The arguments are circular. Boredom sets in, and Arthur Author abandons the manuscript.
But if there is change with consequences, the story has a chance.
Example: Let’s go back to that same miserable family. The parents are unhappily married, busy with dual careers, and stressed. Little Johnny takes the lighter from Dad’s barbeque supplies, goes upstairs, and sets fire to the bedroom curtains. The house burns down. Now the family is homeless, and DHS wants Little Johnny taken to counseling. Are the parents going to pull together to help their young pyromaniac? Where will they live? Does the fire cause Mom to flub her big work presentation and lose her one shot at gaining promotion and a higher salary? What will become of them all?
Do you see how Arthur Author now has somewhere to go in dealing with the ramifications of his characters’ actions? The story idea is starting to grow, and that’s always a very good sign.
Pick up a handful of novels, and look at the opening page. See how many of them start with change.