When it comes to figuring out the overall shape of my story, I find it quite helpful to ask the following two questions:
1. What is the worst possible thing that could happen to my protagonist?
2. How does it turn into the best possible thing?
I like the first question, because it helps me get down to what my story should actually be about-forcing my protagonist to confront his or her greatest fear. If I don’t know what that fear is, I know I’m not ready to write my story. Instead, it’s time to do some research and character development [hyperlink “research and character development” to my “No man is an island-but every character is an iceberg” post] so I can get down to the core of what make my protagonist tick.
The first question is also helpful, because it gives me a sense of how to establish my character’s greatest fear, the extreme measures he or she has taken to avoid it, and the sort of disruption that will force him or her to confront it. In storytelling terms, this pretty much takes us all the way through Acts 1 and 2.
Now for the second question: How does it turn into the best possible thing?
No one wants to confront his or greatest fear, but we all know that doing so is the only way we are ever going to change and grow. Therefore, this second question helps me envision what the end result of this change process looks like. In other words, it helps me conceptualize Act 3. How will my protagonist’s situation change? What about his or her appearance? Status? Outlook on life?
A good example of this is Crime and Punishment. The worst possible thing that could happen to the thrill-killing protagonist Raskolnikov is that the detective Porfiry will be able to pin the double-murder on him. Guess what? [spoiler alert] It happens! How does it turn into the best possible thing? Coming clean and serving him time in the gulag allows him to not only reclaim his humanity but also discover the love for which he had been searching his entire life.
Now, these questions won’t necessarily work for every story, only for those stories typically identified as “comedies”-stories that end well for the protagonist and society as a whole. What about tragedies, stories that don’t end well for anyone?
In that case, I have two other questions you may want to ask:
1. What’s the best possible thing that could happen to my protagonist?
2. How does it turn into the worst possible thing?
Think of The Great Gatsby, for example. The best thing that could happen to the novel’s protagonist, Nick Carraway, would be to receive an invitation into Jay Gatsby’s opulent world. Guess what? That’s exactly what happens. Nick gets exactly what he wants. But, without giving away too much, this invitation leads not only to the ruin of Nick but Gatsby as well.
To complicate matters further, you can also add a third question to this second set in order to redeem a potentially tragic ending.
- What’s the best possible thing that could happen to my protagonist?
- How does it turn into the worst possible thing?
- How does experiencing the worst possible thing turn into the best possible thing?
I like this structure in particular, because it breaks down neatly into Acts 1, 2 and 3. It also fits well with the “sadder but wiser” story arc that is so common in fiction, and a much more accurate reflection of how life actually works.
So there you have it-two (make that five) simple questions to guide your storytelling. Now all you have to do is come up with the answers!