The Five C’s of Story
Stories are, ultimately, simple things. Character, plot, world. Someone does something somewhere. But to create an engaging story that really draws in a reader, you have to dig a little deeper.
Nearly every story starts with a character. No matter how inventive your plot or world is, no one will care if they don’t care about the characters. So the first step is to develop a character who your readers can empathize with.
But note that word — empathy. It means someone your reader can understand. They may not sympathize — they may have never experienced what the character experienced — but they can empathize. Usually, this is found in motivation. The reader can understand why the character is doing something, even if it’s not something they would ever do.
Take, for example, Mindy McGinnis’s excellent The Female of the Species. The main character, Alex, kills a man in chapter one. It’s cold-blooded, pre-meditated murder. And while (I hope) most readers haven’t murdered someone before, as soon as Alex’s backstory is revealed, readers absolutely understand why Alex did such a thing.
When it comes to writing an engaging story, motivation means more than just a reason why a character acts. Kurt Vonnegut famously said, “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” And that’s true, but I’d argue that it takes more than merely wanting to make a character someone we care for.
It takes passion.
We care about characters — about people — with passion. Even if we don’t agree with what they’re passionate about, the key to character, the key to motivation and empathy and everything else, often comes down to passion. In Joss Whedon’s movie Serenity, based on the sci-fi television show Firefly, both the hero and the villain of the story have passion. In fact, the only reason why the villain of the story is the bad guy is because his goal is the exact opposite of the hero’s. If you shifted the perspective, the roles would be reversed. It’s the fact that both these characters are equally passionate about two sides of an issue that makes us care about what happens to both of them.
And it’s the fact that both the hero and the villain of Serenity are so passionate about their opposing goals that develops the main conflict of the story. Sure, the good guy has to face hardships, from a lack of resources to fighting monsters to overcoming loss. But the real heart of the story, the thing that keeps us on the edge of our seat, is the central conflict based on the opposing passions between the hero and the villain.
In order to be a driving force in the story, conflict needs to be linked deeply to the character. It has to be personal in some way. The hero doesn’t just rise to the occasion because they’re a good person; they must have a reason to fight, a reason that the reader can empathize with.
A good conflict also needs to be more than just a fight. Of course, the classic story of knight vs. dragon has been reformed infinite times, and many simplified stories have no problem putting the hero in a white hat and painting the bad guy as a monster who twirls his mustache. But a good story requires nuance and shades of gray.
A good story requires a conflict where there’s not a clear answer.
And the reason why there should be those shades of gray and unclear answers is because the driving element of the plot is the choices the characters make. If it’s obvious what choice a character should make, the reader will grow frustrated. Think of all the horrible horror movies you’ve seen where the gang splits up and the weakest member of the group goes into the dark basement alone. We’re screaming at them to get out, because it’s so obvious that they shouldn’t be doing what they’re doing and the serial killer is right there to stab them with a knife.
Instead, present your character with problems that don’t have a clear right-or-wrong answer. Jordan Peele’s Get Out is a master class in this. Horror grows in the viewer as they watch Chris make perfectly logical choices that unwittingly draw him closer to doom. But Peele’s genius lay in the fact that most viewers would have made the same choices Chris did in the movie. So when he — and the viewer — finally realizes the danger of the situation, our horror is based on the empathy we’ve already formed with the character.
Part of the reason we experience such horror when viewing Get Out is because we’ve put ourselves in Chris’s shoes by agreeing with his choices — which means we more closely feel the consequences of those choices.
Every choice your character makes should have a consequence, and if you’ve built up the empathy with the character and the passion in the conflict, the reader will be unable to be apathetic to the consequences. Because remember: we only care about the consequences if we care about the character.
But more than that, as a writer, you must remember that there are always consequences to actions. Without consequences, there are no stakes. Even in the romance genre — which by definition includes a happily ever after for the main characters — there must be at least the potential for negative consequences for the characters. We need to fear that they cannot succeed so that we can cheer for them when we do.
Because without the fear of those negative consequences, without the passion to succeed to avoid them, without the choices the character must make in order to win — without all of these things, there would be no change. And arguably the most important part of the story is showing how the character changes.
Author Kelley Armstrong once said during a writing workshop that the character at the beginning of the book doesn’t deserve the ending at the end of the book. Those words really stuck with me, and I’ve always found them to be true. When you start writing your book, the hero isn’t the hero yet — or at least, isn’t heroic enough to be worthy of triumph. It’s not just a matter of being strong enough to lift the sword — it’s a matter of both finding the courage to fight, and knowing deeply the consequences of both fighting and not fighting, of losing or of never even trying in the first place.
This of course is true whether you’re writing a dragon-slayer fantasy, a contemporary romance, or a twisted thriller: Your character must become the hero the story needs, and the story is, at heart, about that transformation.
USING THE FIVE C’S
As you write, don’t forget about these five conveniently alliterative details about story. If you’re not sure how to start, consider your character and what they lack. If you get lost in the middle, up the consequences faced, or make the conflict direr. If your ending lacks punch, make sure you’re showing the change based on those details. Whenever you get stuck, present your character with a choice that seems impossible.
But don’t forget — these building blocks are going to help you out in more ways than just writing and planning your story. Revise with a keen eye on what’s most important. Distill your book into these five building blocks and use that to write your synopsis and query. You can even focus in on them to develop a really engaging tagline.
Stories are, ultimately, simple things. It’s what you do within these building blocks of story that creates a truly unique new tale.