For some unknown reason, this series about how to write a “good story” has sort of developed into a writing as a recipe type of thing. That wasn’t really how I was intending to do, but sometimes as a writer you just have to roll with it and see what it turns into. So without further ado, here’s the second step to writing a “good story.”
Step Two: Bring your conflicts to a rolling boil.
Have you ever tried to boil water? It doesn’t happen all that fast does it. That’s why someone came up with that phrase “A watched pot never boils.” The same goes for a story. Have you ever read a book and it started out great, but then after the inciting incident (the event that starts the protagonist on his/her journey) happens the story just grows stale? You’re waiting for the action to start, but it never does or it fails to actually be exciting. Then when it actually does, it’s the end of the book and you’re left wondering why you spent that time reading that garbage fire of a story.
Imagine your book as a pot of water. Pretty boring right? Of course it is, it’s a pot of room temperature water. Your protagonist is living his life in that water and everything’s honky dory (I had to look that term up to see how it was spelled because I’ve never actually spelled it before. There really is a first time for everything). No one wants to read a story about someone’s life running exactly how it should be. It’s boring.
Now turn that dial and get that water boiling. The moment that flame sparks into life underneath the pot, that’s the moment it changes the life of the protagonist. That’s the inciting incident of the story. That’s the moment that throws the hero into motion. It’s the thing that makes the story exciting. No one would watch LOTR: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) if it was just Frodo, Sam, and all the other hobbits living a peaceful life in the Shire. The spark in that story is when Bilbo Baggins places the One Ring on his finger during his birthday and causes the Ring Wraiths to head towards the Shire.
As a side note, I love using J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic tale as an example because it really is a good example of a “good story.”
Once that spark is lit and the protagonist is on his/her quest, you have to keep that action going by providing obstacles that are bigger and better as the story heads towards that climax. Going back to our pot of water example, once the water gets warmer it doesn’t settle down does it? The temperature in the water will only escalate which will cause increasing turbulence inside the pot. If your protagonist triumphs in a huge battle at the midpoint of the story, but then spends the rest of the story overcoming lesser obstacles then there really isn’t a risk that your protagonist could be defeated by the end of the story. Going back to Lord of the Rings, what if the armies of men defeated Sauron’s forces in the second book and then Sauron simply watched Frodo and the rest of the Fellowship walk right into Mt. Doom and tossed his expensive jewelry into the lava. You have to keep the readers reading your book.
So now the water has reached started boiling. Great, but what does that mean when it comes to a story? That’s the climax of the story. It’s the final battle between your protagonist and antagonist. If your antagonist wins, then the water boils over and there’s mess and chaos everywhere. You know what that looks like. Everyone’s experienced that before. If the protagonist wins, then that dial is switched off and the fire is extinguished. If you’re wondering where that is, it’s the moment that Frodo throws the One Ring into the fiery depths of Mr. Doom.
But Jim, you may ask, the water’s still hot and bubbling. Your example is trash. Quit your day job and go do something else.
Calm down people. After the fire is turned off, the water will eventually grow colder and the waters will calm themselves. A story’s resolution is much the same. Once the protagonist wins, things settle down and the protagonist will return to his/her normal life. At the end of Tolkien’s epic, Frodo and Sam end up going back to the Shire and live relatively quiet lives.
Next week I’ll be continuing this crazy storytelling series recipe with something as equally creative as comparing a story to a pot of water. Hopefully you all stick around and see what I come up with.