Wouldn’t it be nice if you could plot your entire story by asking one question?
Last time we talked about the Storycrafting Checklist, or everything that has to go into a finished novel. But how do you get all those pieces in?
Over the past 12 years and 55 novels, I’ve discover a “Story Equation” that helps me discover and build into a story all the essential pieces. (And I’ll be blogging about that “SEQ” –or Story Equation this year). But the center of the equation starts by asking ONE powerful question:
Who are you?
From that question, the equation pulls out two key elements: Identity and the Dark Moment Story. From that Dark Moment Story we’re then going to pull all our essential ingredients to create our compelling character and riveting plot: The characters greatest fear, his lie, his flaw, his competing values, his wants, his wounds and the big why that drives the entire story.
In the advanced layer, we’ll also find our secret desire, his greatest dream, and the other elements that help us build our plot.
WHO are you?
The SEQ starts by asking the character, “who are you?” Often, we bring to the story what we call the story seed. This is the naked story idea that has sparked–probably from something we’ve heard or read about, a big question, a situation, a historical figure or event, even a great what-if.
Owen Christiansen: Troublemaker
One of my favorite characters to develop was the final character in my Christiansen family series. I’d already explored all his other siblings, but I had no idea who Owen, the family troublemaker was until I got to his story.
I needed a SEQ.
My conversation with Owen went something like this:
Who are you? “I’m a prodigal fisherman.”
Why are you a prodigal fisherman? “I’m a fisherman because this is the job that I could get. I’m working on a crabbing boat. It’s a short term job, temporary. I don’t have to commit to it. I can just work hard for a season, get money and go on because I’m a vagabond. I’m on the run, hence why I’m called a prodigal.”
Why are you a prodigal? “Well, because I don’t want to live in the life that my parents don’t really want me to live but I can’t go home.”
Why can’t you go home? “I sort of made a mess of things at my sister’s wedding when I was visiting.”
Really, what happened? “I don’t know really what happened but my brother, Casper, got freaked out on me, got really upset, attacked me in the middle of the wedding and we got in a huge fist fight. I don’t know what his problem was. Or . . . actually I do. Apparently he fell in love with this girl that — okay. Yes, I had a one-night stand with. I realized it was probably a bad thing but I did. He fell in love with her and when he found out we’d slept together, he took it personally and got angry. I got mad too and we got into a huge fist fight. I realize now that probably I handled it badly.”
Why did you handle it badly? “I’ve had a rough go of it because I–you might not know this about me but I used to be a professional hockey player and I had the whole world and then — well, my brother-in-law actually hit me with a hockey stick and he made me blind in my eye. My whole career is destroyed. What do you expect from me? I had this life and now I don’t anymore. So thank you very much. This is my life now.”
Perfect. Now, as an author, I have a little picture of Owen. I also have a hint of the dark moment story–which is probably losing his eyes.
I can also build on that and easily ask: what is his greatest dream and secret desire? He wanted to play hockey. He wanted to be somebody.
Now that I’ve drilled down the adjective, I’ll move over to the noun. Fisherman. This gives me a hint of what Owen looks like on the outside. He’s got an eye patch because he lost his eye. And, he’s working the high seas, so we can attach a pirate vibe to him. He’s probably a hard worker because he needs to earn money. Probably also a bit unkempt, scruffy beard from being at sea for a month. He doesn’t really care what he wears, old it-shirt, old sweatshirt, this sort of thing.
We can go even deeper and ask: What’s his attitude? Who is this guy who’s now working on a fishing boat? He’s named himself a prodigal. A person that’s named himself a prodigal probably has a little bit of regret. When the story opens, Owen knows he’s not doing the right thing but he feels like there’s no way back. He probably wears a small chip on his shoulder, and most likely feels very alone. Perhaps he feels that he can’t get close to people because he feels guilty about hurting his brother–which means he might even regret his womanizing ways. Perhaps he’s even tried to amend his actions, but still feels like he can’t go home.
However, based on this analysis, his secret desire is definitely to go home.
(By the way, get Owen’s story, You’re the One that I Want here!)
Give us a Dark Moment Story
The goal is to get to the heart of your character by asking why, until you land on a Dark Moment Story.
The Dark Moment Story is the core of your SEQ; it’s the secret sauce behind what all the stuff that your character does. The Dark Moment Story gives your character motivation, it combines with the greatest dream to find out what he wants, which then gives him a goal, establishes his lie, and helps develop your character’s flaw. (Which we’ll expand on next time) All the pieces of your equation come from this dark moment story.
We can find a dark moment story in almost every great movie.
In Braveheart, William Wallace’s Dark Moment Story is played in out in the first 20 minutes of the film. First his family dies and then the woman he loves, his wife dies.
In one of my favorite movies, While you Were Sleeping, the Dark Moment Story is told by the heroine, Lucy, to Jack during their walk home through Chicago. (Hint: it’s the story of her father, always wishing to go somewhere, and her never taking a trip because he got sick and she had to take care of him. Her wound is her empty passport. But, we’re getting ahead of ourselves!)
Three essential elements to a Dark Moment Story
- The Dark Moment Story is a specific event.
Often, when authors develop character, they sum up their past with an overview: “Well, his parents got divorced or his mother died or his brother ran away or he was bullied in school . . .” These are certainly traumatic, life-changing events, but none of us clue us in to what shapes your character. As an author, you have to create a specific event in which that seed a rejection fear, unforgiveness, bitterness took place.
It needs to be something that happened, something they remember, and something they can detail. And often, it isn’t the main event, but an ancillary event that really matters.
- The Dark Moment Story is Relatable
You’re looking for something poignant, something that will tug on the heartstrings. It doesn’t have to be elaborate, or even that dramatic. It could merely be the day when no one showed up to your character’s seventh birthday party. Or the day your character thought he was going fishing with his father, and he got left at home. Sure, it might be powerful–the death of a family member, for example. But often we jump to the dramatic when, in fact, it’s the small things that wound so deeply.
- The Dark Moment Story is Poignant
You, as the author must be able to dream it up and feel it first. Have your character tell it to you in first person, and write it down in detail, so you can hear and feel the inflection of their voice, their words, and their emotion. Once you make that emotional connection with the story, you can share the deeper layers of it–and your reader will connect with the emotion and story as well.
The magic of the Dark Moment Story isn’t just in developing character; it’s also a tool you’ll use in the story to develop the bond between characters and between the character and the reader.
In most cases, you’ll insert that story in dialog in your second act to help solidify the motivation for the Noble Quest as well as build the Character Change journey. Yes, you might modify the story in the retelling on the page, but getting the foundation down now is the key.
Once you have your Identity and your Dark Moment Story figured out, you have the tools to build the rest of the SEQ.
If you are a true organic, and you just can’t bear to do any more planning, then stop right here. You know who your character is, and what motivates him.
Or . . . you can keep going and start to pull out the plot. Which I’ll show you next time.
Go write something brilliant!
(P.S – Wanna learn my secrets? How to Write a Brilliant Novel! Only $4.99 on Kindle!)