I started writing novels in fifth grade. I emphasized in creative writing in grad school, writing a novel as my thesis with the help of a committee of three professors. I’ve attended week-long writing conferences with editors, agents, and published authors. I have friends who are published authors. I’ve read books about writing novels. I spent years revising my first novel and then wrote a second and have spent years revising that. I taught a novel-writing course at the community college in 2015 that I’m now teaching again.

You would think I would know the key factor for how to write a novel.

But somehow, although I knew a story should be character driven and transformative etc etc, I missed the crucial memo for how that works:

A story is built around the tension between what a character wants and what prevents them from getting it.

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I’m tempted to redeem myself here by telling you all the things I did know about novel writing. Those other aspects weren’t wrong and haven’t been a waste. It’s just that they’re sort of like accumulating a houseful of possessions and boxing them up and stacking them in a moving van and driving them to your destination … only to realize you don’t have the key to the house itself. Everything is right there, ready to be put in place, but for that one tiny little catch!

What I want to present here is that key, which I’ve spent hours outlining for my students for tonight’s class so that they—the lucky ducks—won’t be stuck outside with all their fabulous pieces (intriguing characters, fantastic settings, mind-bending plot twists) that have no where to go.

This semester’s novel-writing class started just a couple weeks ago, and we’ve been using the brilliant guide Story Genius by Lisa Cron as our text. I read it eighteen months ago, yet teaching it has made sense of it for me on a new level. (Admittedly, my real mistake was not taking the exercises more seriously before.)

Cron repeatedly emphasizes the need for understanding the why of your story. Why does your protagonist do what they do?

That starts with why you want to tell this story. What point are you trying to make? I was skeptical: wouldn’t that make it didactic? But it’s more like deciding what theme you want to explore. Think Shakespeare exploring the theme of star-crossed lovers in Romeo and Juliet. Stories need meaning so that readers will care.

Then you pick a protagonist who really needs to learn that lesson, someone whose life will be totally upended by this theme because they are ripe for it. Think how naive Romeo and Juliet both are and how innocently they fall deeply in love without being prepared for its complications.

Now we’re at the step of figuring out what the character wants and why.

Romeo wants Juliet. Juliet wants Romeo. Because hormones and sex drive and forbidden love and all the reasons. They make pinpointing a character’s main desire look so easy.

Other classics seem like cakewalks too: The Count of Monte Cristo explores the theme of revenge, so we know exactly what Edmond Dantès wants and why—revenge for his wrongful imprisonment!

But my character could want almost anything. In fact several things. All the things. (Hell, I want all the things. My life’s wish list is always overflowing.) For my character, there’s a guy she really loves but there’s also her divorced parents that she wants to fix and friends she wants to help and freedom she wants to gain and on and on and on. How do you narrow down to the thing that unlocks the story?

I wanted a formula. So I sat down and thought, “Okay, what are the main possibilities in broad terms?”

four desires

When I realized there are only four types of wants, I got suddenly excited. This is doable! I immediately went into teacher mode and opened a slideshow app, even before I knew where it would go. I created the above slide and then thought, “Okay, do each of these lead a certain direction?”

I started with the easiest one. I’d long ago noticed a trend that if a story starts with a relationship, that relationship is going to break up. You could also apply that to stories like Job in the Bible, where he already has a great life and then it gets taken away. So there we have our first formula that authors can apply to their characters:

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I came up with two strong examples to emphasize the point:

  • Frodo in Lord of the Rings loves the shire, and forcing him to leave creates tension throughout the story because he wishes were back there
  • Bella in New Moon (sequel to Twilight) starts with Edward but loses him, which creates new romantic tension: Jacob is there vs Edward is not

In some cases the character won’t get what they want back and in other cases they will. Sometimes the point will be learning that what they really want is deeper and bigger, like that Frodo really wants to save the shire, even if he is so changed by his quest that he can’t truly go back. Bella learns that what she really wants is not just Edward’s love (which caused him to leave her out of concern that he was her biggest danger) but also his willingness to bring her fully into his life.

Taking away the thing your character wants and already has could be the key to driving that character toward a deeper understanding that will help readers see your point.

What about the next scenario? If a character has experienced what they want in the past, what does it tell us about what an author should do next?

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Once I created this slide, I felt tentative euphoria that maybe these formulas were working! Especially once I pinpointed examples:

  • The four siblings in The Chronicles of Narnia can’t use the same route to Narnia (the wardrobe) in the second book as they do in the first
  • Mark Watney in The Martian has already survived 18 sols on Mars before things go wrong that force him to figure out new survival techniques

The first example seems like it might not drive an entire story, but it tells us that what we knew before is no longer true. Not only has the route changed but so has the amount of time (1300 years have passed) and the political climate etc. The characters will have to adapt to the unexpected rather than trusting previous knowledge.

The second example, of an astronaut abandoned on a desolate planet, particularly intrigues me. Staying alive is a fundamental desire that we don’t think about until it’s threatened. For Mark Watney, the things that kept him alive beforehand get taken out of the picture one by one (other people to rely on, communication with Earth, pre-stocked food sources, optimized habitat, homegrown food), driving the story and keeping us on the edge of our seats to know how he’ll find a way to cope with each new threat to his life. 

We might be tempted to lump Mark into the first category, wanting what he already has, except that what he wants—survival—isn’t taken away. He’s still alive, it’s just that the known path—his previous means of survival—is removed.

This type of story is interesting to readers because as humans we want the comfort of predictability; we want to think that once we’ve learned how to do something then we’re set for the next go-around, but subconsciously we know life doesn’t work that way. Stories about finding a new route to success remind us that there’s always more to learn; we never have it all figured out. That forces the characters to use extra ingenuity against the unexpected and keeps readers engaged as well.

With past and present checked off the list, I contemplated future desires next—the kind that could realistically happen.

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This is the one that seems to apply to most stories, so coming up with examples was easy:

  • Luke in Star Wars is bored on Tatooine and wants to leave, but he doesn’t anticipate the peril that grants his wish & tosses him into an intergalactic war
  • Katniss in The Hunger Games wants to keep her family safe, but that becomes much harder when her sister is chosen as a sacrificial tribute

One interesting question about this setup is whether or not a character’s initial desire stays the same throughout a story. Once Luke’s aunt and uncle are killed and he’s in with Obi-Wan Kenobi and meets Leia and Han Solo etc, what he wants becomes bigger. Same with Katniss, whose desire changes from just keeping her own family safe to fixing the whole dystopian world.

But it could be argued that they wanted those things all along, they just didn’t know that’s what they wanted. Luke wanted to be part of something bigger than his remote farm life, and fighting for an intergalactic rebellion to save everyone from the dark side certainly isn’t small or boring. Katniss wanted to keep her family safe, and ultimately the best way to keep them safe would be to fix the underlying problem: the post-apocalyptic society that preys on the working class for the entertainment of the wealthy.

Like with Mark Watney, we might also debate whether or not Katniss belongs in the first category—wanting what she already has, since she has kept her family safe so far before the story starts—but she’s not exactly living the good life and doesn’t want things to continue as they are; she wants it to be better.

In these cases of wants that are possible but not yet achieved, characters don’t expect where the want will lead them because they don’t realize how big the issue is that’s preventing their success. The more they experience complications throughout the story, the more they come to appreciate what’s at stake and the more invested they become in a bigger solution.

Then finally I wondered about that last approach—when a character wants the impossible.

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Family and love are of course not the only options for this kind of story, but they were the ones that came instantly to mind. I thought of Guardians of the Galaxy and Deadpool 2 and so many other stories that showcase alternatives to the traditional family structure because the protagonist has lost their family of origin or their lover.

Here are two specific examples that would be familiar to almost everyone:

  • Harry Potter wants his parents back, but instead the adults at Hogwarts become substitute parents (Hagrid, Dumbledore, even McGonagall)
  • Romeo and Juliet can’t be together because of their families’ rivalry, but they do get what they want in a way: united in death

(Deadpool 2, by the way, is an interesting satire of the united-in-death option.)

In this kind of story, the tension is inherent because the character can’t have what they want, so the author’s job is to help the character (and the reader) gain new perspective that allows them to accept the twist.

What’s interesting too is how this can also propel a series forward as each book takes it a step further. Harry’s teachers become his surrogate parents, but then in later books those mentors are also taken away and Harry has to find more replacements, such as friends, and eventually he has to rely solely on himself.

This kind of story explores the ultimate conflict of being human: how we deal with loss. The point is to offer hope that happiness is still possible even when our heart’s desire is impossible.

So now where does it leave me and my story? Well, definitely less stressed, and definitely more clear.

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All of my character’s wants boil down to a magically ideal life she used to have as a kid, which included a perfect boy-crush, married parents who told her stories and took her globe-trotting, a tight-knit group of adventure friends, and also the inherent wonder of a child’s worldview, in which faeries etc were still possible.

The trouble is that the previous route is closed: she can’t go back in time to before the boy-crush moved away and her parents divorced and her friend group started breaking apart and one of them became suicidal and mass shootings went on the rise and her worldview became more bleak.

What my character truly wants is magic. But she’s afraid it doesn’t exist. She’s afraid that entropy is the ruling force of the universe, that life gets worse instead of better, that growing up sucks the magic out of life because you wake up to dark realities as you mature. She’s afraid that there is no one to rely on except herself, so she is trying to save her friends and her parents and herself by slamming on the brakes as much as she can, trying not to grow up.

That makes her ripe for learning that magic is real and that the universe is like a Great Mother who holds us and nurtures us and helps us grow—transforming us for the better.

It leads to coincidences that force her to face her fears by slowly taking away what’s worked in the past, just as Mark Watney’s survival mechanisms were taken away one by one. The story gradually drags everyone she’s trying to mother out of reach until she is powerless to save anyone, not even herself, except by turning to and trusting in the power of the universe.

Huzzah! Behold, the story that was there the whole time, like a house already built.

All those plot events that take away the people she cares about (as well as her own ability to survive) already happened in the drafts I’ve written, but from the outside I didn’t understand why the house looked the way it did or why it was a perfect fit for my protagonist. Why did she pick this house?

Now that I’ve unlocked the front door, I can see inside it for myself and understand the layout. With a little bit of furniture arranging and picture hanging, it will finally be completely staged, ready for readers to come on in.

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