When it comes to story development, I’m a moron.
I’m not saying anything about how well I might handle other elements of writing. But I can say with confidence that I’m spectacularly deficient when it comes to developing a character or an idea into a mildly interesting story arc. I can map out characters’ desires like the eaglest-eyed psychiatrist; I can develop inherent conflicts between the races or characters; but when it comes to putting all of that under a story arc that someone might want to read, fuggedaboudit. And none of the tips or formulas I’ve stumbled across helped me make sense of it.
That’s why the bolt of inspiration that struck me recently is such a big deal. I can honestly say that, within an hour of having the idea, I was approaching my novel’s storyline with a confidence and clarity that I’ve never had before.
It all comes down to the Old Testament, if you’ll believe it. Three major stories in the Bible establish patterns that resonate through every crafted story I can think of so far.
Pattern 1: The Invaded Garden
Pattern 1 is found in the first few chapters of Genesis. Humankind is placed in a Garden, a paradise of life and fruitfulness and closeness to God. But when the serpent “enters” the Garden (enters the story) and asks them to violate its laws, Adam and Eve must determine how to act. As we know, they listen to the serpent and are exiled as consequence.
So here’s the pattern:
1.a. – The Garden
Either right at the beginning or soon after it, the story’s protagonist is in a Garden – a world of harmony and beauty. This may be a magical school, Wendell Berry’s Port William, or a happy marriage. Perfect health. It doesn’t have to be a perfect world, but it’s a world worth keeping that its inhabitants would hate to lose.
If your character doesn’t start in his or her Garden,
1.b. – The Snake
Your story’s conflict is going to come from the Snake in the Garden – some force of evil or suffering that threatens the Garden. It might be an external enemy, like Voldemort. It might be a character’s own greed or lust; maybe it’s an illness. But the Snake enters, spoils the beauty of the Garden, and threatens to do more.
Your story will then revolve around a few potential options: If the Snake is a temptation, will your lead character give into the temptation (and throw away the Garden), or will he or she fight it? If the lead character isn’t tempted by the Snake, how will he or she overcome it and deal with whatever damage it’s already done? They might lose the Garden for good; they might lose it temporarily and have to get back; or they may have to deal with a transformed Garden after the Snake’s done its work.
In summary, here is an Invaded Garden storyline:
My hero either begins the story or soon finds him- or herself in a Garden – a reality he or she finds beautiful. But when a Snake invades and threatens that Garden, the hero…
Pattern 2: Escaping Captivity
Pattern 2 is found in the Old Testament Exodus. The Israelites have been slaves in Egypt for generations and are groaning under that oppression. God raises up Moses to lead them, under God’s power and direction, out from Egypt. The nation of Israel must decide all along the way if it will really do what it takes to leave captivity and then, having done so, whether they will press on to the Promised Land or return to their captors.
Here’s the pattern:
2.a. – Captivity
In these stories, rather than starting with a relatively idyllic situation, we open in an unpleasant or dystopian one (think The Giver or The Matrix). Our main character is suffering, and has been suffering for some time – slavery, a terrible family situation, a horrible job. Even Gatsby’s self-imposed distance from Daisy could be a form of Captivity. We want to see how terrible this world is and root for the character to break out of it.
2.b. – Escape
The story, then, begins when the character either 1) wakes up to the possibility of Escape or 2) decides to try to Escape, whatever that means. The tension is going to come along several points: why is Escape so difficult? What internal or external factors are holding your character back from Escaping? And where will they Escape to – what complicates the journey to the Promised Land, if there even is a Promised Land?
My hero begins the story in Captivity – social, familial, physical. I want my hero to Escape, and one day he or she finds out that Escape is possible and maybe within his or her grasp. Once he or she takes it upon him- or herself to Escape or die trying…
Pattern 3: Returning from Exile
Pattern 3 covers the narrative sweep of the Old Testament after Exile begins (in one sense, it also follows the first narrative of Genesis). Because of Israel’s persistent, ongoing sin, they’re given over to other nations, who conquer their territory and resettle many of their people. They must learn how to live in this new reality and, hopefully, how they might arrange for the end of their Exile.
Here’s the pattern:
3.a. – Exile
This is different from Pattern 2 because your main character will know what he or she has lost from the outset. Whether it’s the character’s fault or not, he or she has been torn from a good life and thrown into a painful new reality. The Satanic Verses begins in this way, when the main characters are transformed into nonhuman beings (so does The Metamorphosis, in fact). If we’re to sympathize with the character, we need to see the goodness of what they’ve lost and the unpleasantness of their current situation.
3.b. – Return
The burning question of an Exile story is, “How can I get back what I’ve lost?” Whatever this means for your particular story, that’s going to be your character’s focus – not just trying to escape, but trying to Go Back (or rebuild or whatever it entails). The drama will come as they face all the obstacles, internal and/or external, to getting back what they’ve lost, and possibly as they have to deal with the new reality of a Return that isn’t exactly the same as what went before.
Near the very beginning of my story, my hero is torn into Exile as something good is taken away from him or her. I want him or her to get that thing back, and once he or she commits to doing so…
I’m serious when I say this really helped me, and I’m serious when I say how much help I need developing story. I hope this might help other plot-deficient writers get off to a good writing start!