Clearing the Path

Last week was one of those periods akin to rushing over the rapids in a rowboat–a bit of swirling chaos before being shot over the edge into a plunge.

I’ve bobbed to the surface, but I’m still spinning in the whirlpool below the waterfall. Now I have to pick my moment and paddle hard to get free.

In other words, the science fiction convention is over and I have one more houseguest to go, one speech to write and give, and then … nothing ahead of me but a new manuscript. Woo hoo!

Despite all the distractions, I decided a few days ago that I was going with Idea #3. Remember the half-idea, that shy one I wasn’t sure about? I felt suddenly inspired. I wanted to claim it, to develop it.

Even better, at the moment of decision, the protagonist’s name popped into my mind. Surely that was a sign that this project was meant to be. The portents were looking auspicious indeed.

Today, between panel sessions at SoonerCon in Oklahoma City, I pulled out a new notebook and began work.

Did I start writing chapter 1?

By no means.

Instead, I wrote down the protagonist’s name and the names of other characters that had so far occurred to me. Major or minor–it didn’t matter. I figured out who the villain was and what the villain was after. I gave the villain a name and described him briefly. I jotted down every sketchy scrap in my thoughts, and the list–as first lists usually are–proved to be very short, less than a single page.

I don’t worry about that. I asked myself:  why does the villain want the story’s maguffin?

That answer was easy. But I had more questions. What business was it of my protagonist’s? Logically the conflict I was sketching out belonged between the villain and a different character. How could I make it my protagonist’s business?

No answer came to me then, and I stepped back. The question is still hanging out there. Until and unless I answer it, there will be no story.

Within this brief page of notes, I’d already seen that while my backdrop was intriguing and the premise lively, the concept has a flaw. There’s no direct opposition between the protagonist and antagonist. They might dislike each other. They might be on different sides of a large issue, but they aren’t opponents. Not yet, anyway.

That’s a mighty big hole. I have enough writing experience to recognize it for the dangerous quagmire it truly is. If I can’t lay a plank across it, there’s no point in moving to character design or world building.

Idea development must address the following basic questions:

What’s at stake for the hero?

What’s at stake for the villain?

Are their goals diametrically opposed?

Does the situation have inherent conflict?

Is there potential for the conflict to keep building?

If my idea can answer each of these questions reasonably and plausibly, then I’ll move on to the next phase of prep work.

Meanwhile, Idea #3 looks like it’s flunked the first test. Time to put Idea #1 or Idea #2 through the same examination.

Then again, Idea #4 is starting to glimmer in the far distance of my imagination. Hmm ….

5 Comments

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5 responses to “Clearing the Path

  1. Mark Fentz

    Being a newbie writer, I just dived into a story without thinking about the above and discovered how enthusiasm killing the quagmire turned out to be. I look forward to seeing the steps you go through while creating this book. It’ll be a big help is getting my own creative efforts more organized.

  2. These questions are a great, excuse the cliche, litmus test for a novel idea. I think I knew these inherently but that doesn’t mean I’ve put concrete thought towards them. I think its time to review my current WIPs

    • Yes, it’s amazing how we can soar around on our imaginations and ignore the basics that are actually going to get us through a viable manuscript. I’ve learned the hard way not to ignore these simple test questions.

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