The Prussian Carl von Clausewitz wrote in his classic book, “On War” (1832): “Everything is very simple in war, but the simplest thing is difficult.”
It is much the same with writing fiction. Everything is really very simple. But even the simplest thing can be difficult.
Basically, a piece of fiction deals with a character struggling to solve a problem. That’s all there is to it. Create a character, give that character a problem and allow the character to struggle to solve that problem.
The devil, as they say, is in the details.
When I was editing magazines such as Analog Science Fiction and, later, Omni, I read thousands of story manuscripts. It was distressing how few of their writers understood the basis that forms the backbone of all stories: a character struggling to solve a problem.
Think about all the stories you know. Going back to the Old Testament, to Homer’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey,” even further back to the ancient Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh, every story is built around a character struggling to solve a problem.
Abraham’s problem was to obey the will of his God, even when his God demanded the sacrifice of Abraham’s son. Odysseus’ problem was to get back to Ithaca after the fall of Troy, back to his wife and son, despite all the obstacles that the gods and fate threw in his path. Gilgamesh wanted nothing less than to solve the riddle of death.
People still read those stories because they still speak to us about eternal human values, human strengths, human weaknesses.
Give the story’s central character a powerful, soul-wrenching, life-changing problem. Love or despair. Success or bitter defeat. Life or death. Make that problem so intense that the character won’t be the same person once it is resolved, one way or the other.
It’s disappointing that so many courses in writing fiction fail to point out this basic foundation. Many a writer with a master of fine arts degree finds it impossible to make a living in the commercial publishing world. They become teachers instead, and perpetuate the problem.
Maybe there’s a story idea in there!
OK, a story consists of a character struggling to solve a problem. How does a writer create a plot?
Essentially, the plot is nothing more than the record of how the character goes about solving his or her problem. To me, the character and the problem generate the plot. It’s simple. But even the simplest …
You start with a central character; the story is about him or her. Often this is called “the viewpoint character,” because the story is told from his or her point of view.
Usually, the viewpoint character’s problem involves conflict against another character. The main character of a story, the “good guy,” is called the protagonist. The “bad guy” is the antagonist. Their conflict creates the story’s plot.
When I write a story I don’t waste any time trying to outline its plot, point by point, scene by scene. Too constricting. I just put the protagonist and the antagonist into a setting and let them battle it out. Voila! There’s your plot.
To generate suspense, to keep the reader turning pages and wondering what’s going to happen next, the writer creates a series of smaller problems. A good story is like a steeplechase: the characters have to clear one hurdle after another as they head toward the home stretch and the solution to the protagonist’s major, overwhelming, life-changing problem.
The trick is never to solve one of these minor problems until another one (or two, or more) appears on the horizon. Then, at the climax of the story, the protagonist not only settles all these small problems, but the major, central problem as well.
The good guy wins, if the story is optimistic, upbeat. Or maybe loses, if the story is downbeat. In some stories the protagonist wins, but the victory costs his or her life. That is the classic definition of a tragedy.
That’s how commercial fiction is constructed.
It’s all about that character struggling to solve a central problem.
How do you create a memorable character? It’s simple. But even the simplest things can be very difficult.
Bova is the author of 124 books, including “Leviathans of Jupiter,” his latest futuristic novel. His website address is www.benbova.com.