Fiction is about character growth that comes as a result of people in trouble. When the trouble is resolved, when the character has learned something about himself, or changed something about himself, the story is over.
Writing fiction is a balancing act of character and plot. Too much character can corrupt the pace of the story; too much plot, and the reader loses anyone to care about.
Remember this: the reader must have a rooting interest in the central character (the protagonist). We must care about this person, even if it’s to dislike or despise him. Without an emotional connection between the reader and the protagonist there is no story.
Whether you’re plotting a short story or a novel, both need all the requisite elements of fiction: a protagonist, an antagonist, and a major point of conflict. The bigger, more complex the conflict, the stronger the characters. Your story is only as strong as your antagonist.
Your protagonist is always a reluctant hero. He is flawed, which is to say he is human. He is dragged out of his comfortable world into uncertainty. He changes internally because he is forced to look at his flaws as a result of the conflict presented by the antagonist. This conflict is the stimulation to his character growth. There should be internal conflict and external conflict in every scene.
Fiction is comprised of three acts: Act One: the Setup, Act Two: the Complication, and Act Three: the Resolution.
Act One shows the protagonist before the trouble starts, in his comfortable world, but with myriad problems. Act One ends when the protagonist is so tired of avoiding the impending problem that he believes it is easier to fix the problem than to continue to avoid it. This is when he embarks upon his Quest. By the end of Act One, all the major players have been introduced, as well as the major point of conflict.
Act One places the conflict into the world of the protagonist. It is here the reader sees the impossibility of the situation, how high a mountain must be climbed. As we meet the players he is to interact with, we make judgments about these people—are they useful to the protagonist, or do they add to his many conflicts? The central conflict materializes before us (and the protagonist) and may increase in complexity because of who the protagonist is, and the people around him, and what’s being asked of him. Act One is the building block upon which this story is going to stand. It’s the first date. You want to get it right.
Act Two complicates every tiny point of conflict introduced in Act One. At the end of Act Two, the protagonist and reader alike are certain he will never be able to fix the problem. At the end is the Darkest Moment.
In Act Two think: development. This is where the conflict lives and breathes, and by doing so, takes air out of the room the protagonist desperately needs. This is where we, the reader, learn more about the individual relationships with the characters introduced in Act One. These complicate matters for the protagonist, but aren’t necessarily bad. A love may deepen. A personal history may be revealed.
The Darkest Moment is where all the strings become so entangled we fear they are knotted beyond repair. How can the protagonist possibly get past this emotional or physical obstacle, this impediment? The protagonist is crushed. We are desperate to find a solution, only to realize one doesn’t exist. Houdini is in the chains and under water, and the key he is supposed to have hidden down his throat has been swallowed.
Immediately after the Darkest Moment, the character has an epiphany, an inspiration, or draws upon something he remembers or has experienced in his past. A Discovery. This kicks off Act Three, when the conflicts begin to resolve. The resolution of these secondary conflicts is critical here, to make way for the operatic aria—the Climax. This needs to fly solo. In the climax, he deals, once and for all, with the central external conflict, and he takes a good look at his internal flaws. This is when he either succumbs to his failings or overcomes them. The reader is cheering for him to overcome his flaws, but characters do whatever they do. The point is that he must look at himself and be changed by what he sees. This will allow him to resolve the conflict (or not).
In the final analysis, readers will remember what happens to the protagonist internally, which is ultimately more important than what happens to the external conflict. The Discovery has led to resolution of the Conflict, has led to wisdom. Flawed wisdom, perhaps, but a wisdom we can understand makes sense as a logical outcome of the quest.
A story can be told from any point of view, can include any number of characters, can span any length of time, can host a number of subplots. Stick to one good guy, one bad guy, and one main point of conflict. Give your characters passion, memorable names, quirks, angers, frustrations and depth. Include lots of sensory imagery, so the reader can be in the scene with the character, and reveal your character’s nature through the use of facial expressions and gestures. Differentiate the characters from each other, and from you. Give them a serious problem, throw them off the deep end, and watch them work their way out of it, given whom they are and what they do.
Strongly suggested reading: The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler