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First thought: It’s such a clever/great/amazing/fun idea for a story!

Second thought: I need to write that down.

Third thought: I’ll just start with this character doing/saying something.

Begin writing.

Stall . . .

Fourth thought: Maybe it’s not that clever/great/amazing/fun an idea.

Rather than abandoning the idea, here is where I have to remind myself to keep going, that it will be all right. “Don’t stop! Don’t stop! Don’t stop!” I tell myself. “At least, write your way in. Better yet, make a plan. Plot out a rough story. Use the Pixar Story Spine method. Save the Cat. Inside Outline. It might work!”

Okay. Sometimes a story idea is clever/great/amazing/fun, but there’s just no there there. Too many missing pieces to be a complete story. Nothing to hitch a character arc to. But, sometimes, I just need to get to know the characters to know what their journeys are.

Because, for me, when it comes to sustaining a story it’s the characters that make it work. Big, bright, beautiful, complex, fully-realized characters.  Why? Because interesting characters do and experience interesting things.

So, typically, when I find myself questioning the story, what I am really doing is wondering why my character doesn’t seem very interesting and what can be done to change that.

In my writing workshops, especially when I am speaking on developing fully-realized characters, I talk a lot about conflict, because conflict reveals character.


Conflict is key to unlocking a character’s potential. Whether physical or psychological, conflict drives revelation and character development. It pushes the character forward (or back). Either way, it moves the story. And, if the character is interesting enough, that character’s story carries the reader along with it.

When I was a kid, and we would complain about being bored, one of my mother’s favorite responses was, “Only boring people stay bored.” Turns out, in fiction, boring stories stem from boring characters.

For me, the key to sustaining story is to focus on a fascinating character. Figure out their goals, hopes, and dreams, find their flaws and old wounds, and use them against them. Develop their beliefs and worldviews, then pit other characters against those. Use plot to push their buttons and drive them to act, to choose, to decide. Then make them suffer the consequences of their actions.

As I say to my workshop attendees, and my book coaching clients, your characters are not your friends. They are not your children. It is not your job to be kind to them, or to smooth the way. Your job as a writer is to make them suffer, to strive, to learn, to grow. Put up barriers and compel your characters to break them down. Make them complex, then explore those complexities through conflict.

Show us something someone interesting. That will make for a fascinating story. A sustainable story.


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Published inStory Craft