Q: I read an article that you wrote for the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers about beating writer’s block and I have a follow-up question. You start out by determining who the story is about, but in your article it’s only about one protagonist. My novel has strong romantic elements so it’s really about two people and their relationship in addition to the non-romantic part of the story. I’m curious if you have any advice for a situation like this. Thanks!
A: Thanks for asking! That’s a great question. Writing a romance novel can seem impossible to plan out, because there’s so much going on at once: her story, his story and the story of their relationship together. But with a little work, you can separate the stories and figure out each one, then weave them back together.
The trick is to focus on just one character at a time. Pick one of your main characters and ask this crucial question: What does this character want the most? And the follow-up question: Why?
At its core, every story is about somebody wanting something and not getting it. The beginning of the story is where we find out what the character wants, the middle is where she keeps going after it no matter what, and the end is where she finally gets it (or doesn’t).
You can make things more complex by having a character switch goals midway through the story, once she discovers a new and even more important objective. For example, she might start out just trying to pull off an elegant dinner party without incident… until she runs out of coffee and ends up flirting with the hunky neighbor upstairs. (Hey, it worked for the Taster’s Choice commercials.) But even if her goals change, at any given point in the story she still needs to pursue something specific, and we need to wonder if she’ll reach it. That suspense is what keeps readers turning pages.
So my advice is this: start with one character, and go through each of the steps:
1) WHO is this about?
2) What does that character WANT?
3) WHY does the character want it?
4) What will the character DO to achieve it?
5) What stands in the WAY of the character achieving that goal?
6) How are things RESOLVED in the end?
Then do the same thing for the other lead character. You might find that your characters want more than one thing — that’s good. Those other goals are subplots, and your novel will need several of them so that it’s layered and complex. Just answer those questions for each goal. Later, you can take everything you’ve written and weave it all together. You’ll write a lot of notes, but the material you create will form the basis for your entire story, one that is engaging, complex and un-put-downable.