Today, we will be looking at building the interest and objectives in the narrative.
As I was developing my story ideas and putting meat on the bones of the story, The Strongest Man Alive, I realised that it was not enough to simply say this is our hero, this is our antagonist, this is the objective, and our hero has friends to help him with the mission. Why should we care about the hero? Why should the story interest us? Furthermore, how can we build on that interest, and the objectives of the character in the narrative?
Here’s an example; our detective is our hero and has discovered the problem, a murder – which must be solved. He has to follow a trail of clues, interrogate suspects, examine the crime scene and effectively go on a mystery tour. We do not discover who the real culprit is until the final part of the story, where he then apprehends the murderer. Depending on whether you are watching a TV show of the “Murder She Wrote” variety or reading a book or an Independent-type film, the final piece of the jigsaw would see the villain either calmly get taken into custody, make a mad but brief dash for freedom or have some big fight scene.
In general, in these types of story, the typical rule of introducing the crook early on would not only never work, but be pointless. It’s a different kind of story. In other words, yes, a problem is introduced early on, but it is the result of the action of a villain, not the revelation of the villain. And that’s what my hero was going to embark on; a journey of discovery, following the gruesome clues or breadcrumbs, which manifested themselves in abandoned towns and horrible rumours. It was an extension of the seemingly natural disaster of Away With the Wind, but leading onto the main culprit, whose revelation would come only right at the end.
If we have purchased a book containing 500 pages, we are going to invest time in the characters and story. We are going to enjoy a good comprehensive examination of them and their world and follow their journey with them. On the other hand, if we are watching a film on TV, and we are not gripped very quickly by a problem our nice chap is having, well…..we are going to reach for the TV remote. If a film is ponderous, achingly slow to get going, then the critics will lambast it, and nobody would want to head off to the cinema to see it. Like the villains in countless movies, the story itself becomes a character in this one respect; the story must get off its comfortable sofa and grab our attention by the throat. We want drama, we want action, and we want it quickly. And this can equally be applied to even romantic comedies. Things had better happen very quickly on film. In the Strongest Man Alive, needless to say, it didn’t take very long for our hero to discover his problem.
Here’s an example. Take the simplest of stories.Let’s call this story. “The Tea saga”. But it’s really simple. A teacher gets visited by his friend one day; a friend he hasn’t seen in years. The teacher is surprised, welcomes his friend with open arms and says, “take a seat, I’ll make some tea.” Simple right? Not really. Not if I want to make a story out of this. Not if you want to build interest and the objective of making and receiving tea. After all, what’s so special about tea, you might ask. And by the way, I’m making this up as I go along. If the friend sits in the living room, then I can see my task being harder or near enough impossible. And I’ll tell you why. Unless our friend can see what’s happening the conflict that we need won’t really work for what I have in mind. Our friend will sit in the kitchen, and he will watch the teacher make the tea. So far, so good, right? Wrong. If they think alike nothing happens. A pleasant conversation, tea gets made and drunk, he departs. No harm, no foul. What a lovely cupper. The end. Boring. However, although they’re friends; they think differently about things. I can extend this to hygiene, Feng Shui and even the types of portraits hanging on the ceiling. But it’s a simple story, so we’ll limit this to tea. And for extra simplicity, let’s assume both like PG Tips, but our friend has a way he likes his tea to be made. So he keeps complaining and instructing the teacher as the tea is being made. Water is not the right temperature, milk is wrong type of milk, or not enough, the cup is not quite right, the tea bag is not brewed right, it’s even the wrong tea bag, but as you are using the square ones, it must be like so and so. You can imagine how this will begin to irritate the teacher. Yes, they’re good old friends, but either they’ve been apart for so long, and forgotten their differences (perhaps that’s why they’ve not been in touch for so long) or it’s just that when it comes to making tea, they’re simply poles apart. Now whether I decide to turn this into a comedy or horror depends on what characteristics I decide to give them. I could make the friend sigh and do it himself, except that his character trait is that he’s clumsy and virtually breaks or threatens to break every utensil in the kitchen, when not falling over himself, or I could make this a horror. The teacher has been spending the last few months in a rehab for violent behaviour after witnessing the mugging and death of his wife. He’s prone to violence and the trigger for this is any criticism of his pride and joy. And his pride and joy is making tea. Either he’d spent time in India or China, or learning the trade in a café specialising in the art of tea. And by the way he has an Uzi 9mm stashed in one of the kitchen drawers. See? Conflict. It can be large or small, but tells us about characters and keeps things interesting as we seek to solve the major problem in the story.
What makes a story interesting on a fundamental level, for me, is an interesting character. Then it’s closely followed by an interesting plot. An interesting plot without an interesting character ends up being bland, even predicatable. An interesting take on a government conspiracy plot or alien abduction is boring if the hero turns out to be a troubled detective with a skill for shooting. However if the alien abduction is being conducted by the president in secret, because his relatives were conspiracy theorists, his uncle an astronomer, and his mum a secret occult worshipper, who has discovered a rare artefact that may hold the clues to communicating or at least understanding the reasons for abduction…well, I think you can agree that it’s more interesting than a copper contacting S.E.T.I and the FBI and saying, “bring your choppers, radars and bazookas. We’re going to nuke that mother…”
By giving my characters layers, quirks, unique things about them, and their perspective on life and how to accomplish the goals at hand, I was able to bring interest to the story.
The building of objectives is very important. There is a major goal, and to achieve that, our heroes must discover and tackle minor goals in place to reach that. Solving the little puzzles and clues which escalate brings us a step closer, and arms us with enough information, to get the bigger picture and resolve the problem. The objectives build up to the final objective. The clues our detective was gathering and solving was leading to a picture of the means, motive and opportunity – thereby, painting a portrait of the murderer.
Nevadon, the hero of the story had one simple objective. Find out why this village is abandoned.
But the answer to that grew, as clues and discoveries were made, leading to other objectives; how big is this problem really?
So the first smaller goal was to discover the size of the problem.
How many other places have suffered like this? Another smaller objective to be resolved.
Who is the culprit? Yet another objective.
Where does he live? Goal 4
How can it be stopped? Task 5
What do I need? Task 6
How can I recruit the right people? Task 7
How can I trust them? Task 8
How long will it take? Task 9
How long before the next disaster? Task 10
How can we stop this? Task 11
Do we have what it takes? Task 12
All these questions generating smaller objectives, and indeed how our characters seeks to resolve them builds the narrative and keeps us invested in both him and the story. And that’s how you do it. And the story can be as simple as having an old friend round for tea. What could possibly go wrong?
But that was lesson 9.
- My lesson 9
By understanding the motivations and differences in characters which informs their decisions or decision-making process we become interested in them. Adding conflict helps to keep the story interesting and moving. By adding layers or more tasks, which would enable them to solve the ultimate goal, we ensure a more interesting and ultimately fulfilling story, as each objective is achieved in the build up.
- Next week, in part 10 we shall look at completing the story.