Today’s valuable writing lesson is brought to you by M.C. Tuggle of Charlotte, North Carolina. M.C. is a native North Carolinian whose ancestors arrived in the South in 1647. He majored in history and English, and completed his M.A. in English at Wake Forest University. M.C’s fantasy, science fiction, and literary stories have been featured in Kzine, Bewildering Stories, Mystic Signals, Fabula Argentea, and Fiction 365. Novel Fox published his novella Aztec Midnight in December, 2014. Check out his Fiction page for more information. I had the pleasure of meeting M.C. when I presented a workshop for the Charlotte Writers’ Club last fall and since then M.C. has been my most active commenter on my blog!
We’ve all been there. Despite your meticulous outlining, you find yourself stuck in your story and have no idea what your protagonist does next. How do you advance your plot?
Fear not. This is something every writer has to wrestle with. Even the pros admit to hitting an occasional road block. So whether a best-selling author or lowly scribbler, you have to deal with the occasional plot snag somehow. So I’ll share what I do.
My approach is two-fold: first, go back to your protagonist’s basic motivation. What does he want? Then imagine the worst that could happen to prevent him from achieving his goal. Throw that at him, and watch what he does. If you understand the protagonist’s history and heartfelt desire, you should be able to visualize how he’ll respond.
Make it something totally unfair, something the protagonist doesn’t deserve, and you not only boost conflict, but make your protagonist more sympathetic as well. Think of Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, who yearns to return home. When this brave girl and her new friends finally get an audience with the Wizard, they’re confronted with another challenge: they must somehow enter the Wicked Witch’s castle and take her broom. While they’re tip-toeing through the Haunted Forest on their way to the castle, disaster strikes. Flying Monkeys attack and kidnap Dorothy. Not only is she no closer to returning to Kansas, she’s now without Toto and her friends.
So despite Dorothy’s brave efforts, things are now worse than ever. And that’s a good thing, at least for the story. Dorothy’s prime goal is even farther out of reach, and viewers are riveted to the screen.
If I have difficulty cooking up a believable reversal, I’ll go to the next level and resort to Raymond Chandler’s timeless advice: When in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand.
You can tweak this many ways. Your “man” can be anything or anyone who comes between the protagonist and his goal, and the “gun” can also take many forms, such as a foreclosure notice, a pink slip at work, or the discovery that your spouse is a werewolf.
One source I’ve found invaluable in sparking the imagination is the Book of Qi. It’s free online, and its chapter “Twenty-Six Strategems” for classic Chinese warfare offers a rich variety of scenarios that a writer can modify into a plot twist.
For example, in my short story “Cameron Obscura,” the protagonist, an autistic savant, promises his dying father, an amateur astronomer, he would observe a rare alignment of stars his father had long planned to see. I threw a forecast of rain at the protagonist to make it impossible to see the alignment, then tried to imagine what he’d do next. I loved the scenario, but soon realized I’d painted myself into a corner. Now what?
I found a stratagem from the Book of Qi that switched on my writer’s light bulb: “While carrying out your plans, be flexible enough to take advantage of any opportunity that presents itself, however small, and avail yourself of any profit, however slight.” If my protagonist couldn’t see the full event that night, he could at least see the partial alignment during the day before the storms rolled in. So I had my protagonist descend into a deep, dark well where he thought he could see the stars despite the daylight. The well, supposedly a solution, becomes yet another obstacle (a “gun”), and a treacherous one at that. It gave me the opportunity to add some danger to the scene as the autistic young man rappels into the musty well and maneuvers around obstacles.
I sold the resulting story to Fabula Argentea.
In addition to the Book of Qi, there are several excellent books on strategy I’ve found useful. Check out The Art of War by Sun Tzu or How Great Generals Win by Bevin Alexander. Good stories depend on conflict, and you’ll find plenty in books on war strategy.
M.C. Tuggle is a writer in Charlotte, North Carolina. His fantasy, sci-fi, and literary stories have been featured in Kzine, Bewildering Stories, Mystic Signals, Fabula Argentea, andFiction 365. The Novel Fox has just published his latest novella, Aztec Midnight. He blogs regularly at www.mctuggle.com.