Stories are usually focused on one character called the protagonist. Readers see through their eyes, experience their emotions, and thereby escape their problems for a little while. Such is the attraction of good fiction.
For the majority of these stories, that person–the protagonist–is, in fact, a puppet. He or she is yanked this way or that by someone else’s design. The protagonist is battered by external forces, and that force comes from the antagonist, be it a person or an ephemeral, sometimes self-destructive, quality.
Many books on fiction will tell you that most commercially-successful novels (and movies) have a relatively simple structure. Whether it’s a James Bond spy novel, a historical romance on the moors of nineteenth-century Devonshire, or a hack-and-slash murder mystery in downtown San Francisco, the story will have three key points, and they occur at remarkably predictable places in the story as measured in page count or movie minutes.
These three points are variously described as 1) Inciting Event (often on page one or in the first minute of the movie) that propels the main character out of his/her normal world into a new adventure, 2) a momentous event that, again, deflects the main character from one path into another, and 3) a final, earth-shattering moment in which he or she commits to either defeating the opposition, or dying in the attempt.
All three points occur within steps of the antagonist’s preconceived plan. The antagonist, be it a he, she, or the inner daemon, has planned this all out ahead of time. And like anyone focused on a distant goal, the antagonist simply squashes anyone or anything to keep that plan on track. To the antagonist, the opposition is a pesky annoyance. Like a biting ant, it must be dealt with, and a simple slap or brush of the hand will suffice.
So, as a writer, where do we begin? How do we come up with a story?
Many say it starts with a “what if?“
- What if that couple with the baby outside the coffee shop are Chinese agents intending to steal industrial secrets from a semiconductor manufacturing facility north of town.
- What if the man carrying two paper cups of coffee out the door intends to add rat poison to one before giving it to his freeloading but rich brother-in-law whose sole benefactor would be his married-to-the-good-guy sister?
- What if that white Mercedes SUV with Texas license plates that just pulled into a parking space in front of the coffee shop was stolen in Fort Worth two days ago, video-taped in a bank holdup in Albuquerque yesterday, and the cops are about to converge on its heavily-armed occupants?
While the protagonist may be mentioned, what we see in these three imaginings are the bad guy’s plan. Any changes they precipitate in the protagonist’s life are superfluous. They are, to the baddies, noise.
Many of the books on writing suggest you begin the development of a story with that idea, with that first “what if,” and then expand it, come up with the next “after that, what if this then happens?” And then what after that?
The problem with this approach is not recognizing that what you (the author) is doing has little or nothing to do with the good guy. Instead, you’re making up the bad guy’s plan. You, the author, must get into the bad guy’s head and plan the crime!
The good guy, inserted after the fact, just appears in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Let’s call this what it is: Writers of fiction make up plans to steal industrial secrets, murder an in-law, and to rob banks.
Talk about vicarious living!
And once that evil plan is complete, we then plunk down some poor schmuck at an inopportune place and time such that it annoys the baddies. And like that biting ant, they swat or brush him aside, and then go on with their plan.
Story is born from evil.
And it has a plan!