By Trai Cartwright
Studying writing is, as we all know, a never-ending adventure. We go to classes and conferences, read books, assign ourselves independent studies, work with mentors and peers, all in the effort to improve our writing skills and champion our quest to be “real writers.” We’ll learn things that don’t apply, we’ll forget things we already once knew, and we’ll relearn things many times over, until they become muscle memory and finally we’ve got the tools to be exceptional in our efforts.
These are the tools I hope I never forget when I’m sitting down to write; just five simple questions:
Why that guy?
Why can’t he say no?
Why can’t he win?
Why won’t he fail?
To me, these are the essential questions when building any story.
Why today? Why does this story have to start on this particular day in my character’s life? If this isn’t the day when the way he used to live is over and a new way of life is about to begin, then this isn’t the day with which to start my story.
Why that guy? What about my protagonist makes him (or her) the absolutely right guy for this story? What uniquely aligns him with this adventure? I like to use the example of Will Smith in “I Am Legend,” the post-apocalyptic tale of a boy, his dog and a planet of zombies. Not only was Will a soldier, which increased his chances for survival, but he was a soldier-scientist who was part of the original team for a cure. And not only was he the guy who was already looking for the cure, but he was one of .000001% of humanity who was immune to the zombie disease. That made him “the guy” for that story, and then some. My hero’s got to have something about him that makes him “the guy” for my story.
Why can’t he say no? It’s not enough to dangle the end of the world in front of someone and expect that to motivate them. First you have to make it personal. Nothing motivates a person to action more than endangering what he holds dearest.
Why can’t he win? Heroes are great, but conflicted humans are better – everyone should have a fatal flaw in them that sets them up for failure. There’s that moment in all of us when we’re faced with the biggest stakes of our lives, with potentially the biggest pay-off of our lives on the other end, and we allow the weakest part of ourselves to take the wheel. That decision, made by the fatal flaw in our personality, makes victory impossible.
Why won’t he lose? But let’s face it: heroes are most heroic when the worst demon they have to face down is their own. No arch-nemesis can do more damage than our own worst tendencies, and no fatal flaw will ever be stronger than our will to survive, to vanquish and to triumph. Humans are built to win.
So take a look at your stories and see if these questions have been answered. And when you get bored of that, have a look at your life – you, of course, are the star of your own never-ending adventure – and see if you can answer these questions for yourself.