|TIPS FOR WRITERS
Ben Bova -- Page 2
4. Character + Problem = Story.
A fictional story consists of a character struggling to solve a problem. Nothing more. And nothing less.
It constantly surprises me how few fledgling writers understand this simple fact. If you do not have a character struggling to solve a problem, you do not have a story. No matter how beautifully the sentences are constructed, no matter how lovely the background or how fascinating the character you are describing, unless that character is struggling to solve a problem your story will be rejected by any commercial editor.
The main character in a story is called the protagonist. Create a strong protagonist. Remember that the reader wants to be the protagonist. If your protagonist is really memorable, the reader will bleed when he bleeds, laughs when she laughs, shudder when heís frightened and exult when she triumphs.
Make your protagonist as wonderful as you can, but give him a powerful weakness, a potentially fatal flaw. Your protagonist should have an internal problem, a crisis within her soul. This not only makes the protagonist believable, it makes him sympathetic. Nobody can feel very much for a person who has no weaknesses. Superhuman heroes belong in comic strips, not in serious fiction.
Take your protagonistís internal problem and externalize it by putting her into conflict with another character, the antagonist. Make that conflict amplify the protagonistís internal problem. Let your protagonist struggle as hard as he can to resolve his conflict with the antagonist. By resolving this conflict, the protagonist will also resolve her internal problem.
Thatís what a story is all about. Itís that simple. But, as Clauswitz said about war, even the simplest things can be very difficult.
5. No Villains.
Notice that I used the term ďantagonist,Ē above. Not ďvillain.Ē ďNot ďbad guy.Ē Not ďblack hat.Ē
In the real world there are no villains. No one actually sets out to do evil. Yes, there are madmen and murderers and rapists and crooked politicians and greedy land developers and all sorts of villainous behaviors. But each of those people believes that he is doing what is necessary, and maybe even good. Every tyrant in history was convinced that he had to do the things he did for his own good and for the good of the people around him.
Fiction mirrors life. Or, more accurately, fiction serves as a lens to focus what we know of life and bring its realities into sharper, clearer understanding for us.
There are no villains cackling and rubbing their hands in glee as they contemplate their evil deeds. There are only people with problems, struggling to solve them. Just as your protagonist is struggling to solve her problems, your antagonist is struggling to solve his. Itís all a matter of viewpoint.
You could write Hamlet, for example, from the viewpoint of Claudius, the king who murdered Hamletís father (his own brother) and married his widow. You might even make a truly powerful story about a man who loved his brotherís wife too much, and dared to what he did to win her.
But he wouldnít be a villain.
6. Start in the Middle.
It is vitally important to capture the readerís interest on the first page of your story. On the first line, preferably. This is called ďthe narrative hook.Ē
Itís like fishing. You want to hook that reader so thoroughly that she canít let go of your story until itís ended.
The best way to do this is by starting your story in the midst of brisk, exciting action. Start in the middle! Donít waste time telling the reader how your protagonist got into the pickle heís in. Show the protagonist struggling to get free. You can always fill in the background details later.
Particularly in a novel, itís tempting to ďset the scene,Ē explain the protagonistís background, describe how she got to where she is. Cut all that out. Or at least save it for later. Start in the midst of action. Hook the reader right away or you wonít hook him at all.
In a short story there simply isnít time for static explanations. All the background details have to be worked in through action or dialogue. Show what they are doing, donít tell what they did.