Here another useful tool I use when I’m dancing around, trying to find my plot. I find that once I’m able to answer the following 9 questions, the story has pretty well coalesced and I’m ready to start outlining and/or writing. I’ve gathered and combined these ideas from a bunch of more experienced authors ((Blake Snyder, Dean Wesley Smith, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Larry Block, and David Farland, to name a few), and while this process works for me, your milage may vary.
- At the start of the book, what distinguishes your protagonist from other people? (“it’s about a guy…”). Think about why are you writing about this person. It’s not a physical description or an explanation of who they are. The underlying imperative here is: why is my protagonist the perfect person for the task ahead? Choose someone with primal stakes. Like SURVIVAL, HUNGER, SEX, PROTECTION OF LOVED ONES, FEAR OF DEATH, etc. Readers must believe the protagonist deserves to win.
The protagonist must fit your target audience and genre (which you’ve already chosen). And remember, the protagonist/antagonist does not have to be a paragon or exemplar of any given virtue, but they MUST be good at whatever it is that they do. Otherwise, the audience will not identify with them or root for them.
- When the novel opens, what interesting or important thing is he/she on the brink of doing? Enter as late as possible / media res.
- What external situation will influence, shape, or effect your protagonist throughout the course of the book? I find it very helpful to think about what the external stressor is going to be and how it will be applied to the protagonist. It could be the antagonist, or the environment, or it may be the internal world that the protagonist must face during the course of the book (e.g. love affair).
- What is the protagonist’s goal for the period of time the book will cover? Survival is a given; but what else? Who is the protagonist’s mirror? Who is the protagonist trying to please/win/appease, and why?
- What are the obstacles that will stand in the way of the protagonist achieving their goal? Things get worse. And worse, and much, much worse. For a novel I look for about 9 plot threads, all of which should pretty much fall apart around him.
- What qualities within the protagonist will help or hinder them in overcoming their obstacles? If you don’t think the protagonist doesn’t have the right tools to overcome the obstacles, then you’ve got the wrong protagonist or the wrong external situation. This is a good place to go back and reconsider what you’ve written down earlier. A novel is an organic thing; it can be a work in progress until it’s actually finished. This is usually where I think about how the protagonist will face the antagonist in the final showdown and how he will prevail (or not).
- How will the protagonist change? And the other key characters may grow and change, too, to some extent. And consider that the environment may also change as a result of the protagonist’s (or antagonist’s) actions.
- Why do you want to tell this story? Sometimes, knowing your impetus to tell this tale will embolden you to actually tell it. The odds are pretty good that you’re telling a story that has been told before. Why is YOUR version worth anybody’s time?
- What price will your protagonist pay or what sacrifice will they endure to achieve the ending? (i.e what is the cost of success?) Also, what is the protagonist’s reaction to this cost?
By the time I’ve answered these questions, I’ve got a pretty good idea who my protagonist and antagonist are (as well as several of the key characters) and have written a dozen or so pages of backstory, motivations, and goals for my main character(s). I’ve got plot threads, a character arc, and a riveting opening scene.
Not to mention a great story to tell. Let the fun begin…