last updated: 12 June 2018 (approximate reading time: 5 minutes; 1053 words)
At various times I’ve undertaken work as a ghostwriter—someone who writes a book but who is then paid but not credited. The named writer then takes the credit with their name on the cover and undertakes the publicity for the book.
I usually wrote non-fiction, but occasionally people would approach me about fiction projects. These approaches always followed the same pattern. My first question with any new project always was (and always is): “What’s the budget?”
This was always a flummoxing question to the person approaching me. It never flummoxed anyone with a non-fiction project, but for fiction approaches, the response was always words to the effect: “But, Simon, you don’t understand…”
There would then be some long explanation that this was such a great idea that we would all be making money—more money than anyone could dream of. I’d mutter about an advance and be told not to worry about tiny amounts…I should look at the big picture. I was being offered a share in something huge and should be grateful for the opportunity.
It was at this point that I would always decline the offer and move on to something that paid.
I declined because, first, ideas are not scarce. Ideas are not unique. Heck, there’s not even any copyright protection for ideas. The key is the realization of any idea.
But more importantly, apart from the fact that I was never going to see any money, I declined because what these people always had was a situation, not a story.
A situation is different from a story.
Every story will have a situation, but not every situation has a story.
So what’s the difference? Let’s take may book Bag Man as an example. At the end of the book we have a situation. The situation in this case is that a child has been kidnapped and likely has been taken out of the country.
A situation is a set of facts (to the extent you can have facts in the context of fiction). It is the circumstances at the present time.
Where the situation is a matter of circumstance, story involves characters.
Reducing a story to its most simple level, there will be a protagonist and an antagonist. Simplifying, the protagonist is the lead character and the antagonist is the character stopping the protagonist from achieving their goal.
So if we have a situation where a man has been killed, that is not a story. However, building on that situation, if a woman seeks vengeance against the person who killed her children’s father, then we have the kernel of a story.
A story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. The middle of the story involves the protagonist going up against the antagonist. When the story has reached the end, the protagonist will have achieved their goal or will have failed. In either case, when comparing the protagonist’s situation at the beginning and at the end of the story, their life will have changed, and will have changed irrevocably.
As you can see, a story is very different from a situation. However, there are more factors that come into play to make a compelling story.
Conflict and Stakes
To drive a story, there needs to be conflict and stakes.
For a story to be compelling, the protagonist and the antagonist must each want something. Everybody wants something…even if you just want to live a quiet life and for everything to remain the same.
In fiction, conflict isn’t a matter of the protagonist saying “yes” and the antagonist saying “no”. It’s one person pursuing what they want and that pursuit coming up against what someone else wants. When two people want the same object, or one person’s pursuit stops another person getting what they want, then there is a root for conflict.
More than there simply being a conflict, something needs to be at stake for the protagonist and the antagonist. There must be the potential for a loss.
This loss can take many forms, for instance, it could be a loss of money (maybe through theft), loss of a person (for instance, through murder), or loss of esteem (which can happen when one person publicly disrespects another). To make the story believable, the potential loss must be real to the character. Moreover, that loss must be connected with “failing” in the central conflict in the story.
Leathan and the Kidnapping
In Bag Man, Leathan Wilkey has a simple task—to make a ransom exchange.
When the exchange falls apart, Leathan’s motivation is clear. He senses danger for the child and feels an element of personal responsibility. At the end of the story, he has failed to recover the child.
He is then offered the chance to get involved with the recovery of the child as the action moves from Paris, probably to another country. Leathan refuses and instead chooses to get drunk to blot out the sting of his failure.
I’ve already mentioned the question about whether this ending was a set-up for another book—the story of the recovery—and confirmed that there will be no follow up.
From a storytelling point of view, this story—the story of Leathan being right and yet failing—was the story that I wanted to tell. But there’s a secondary reason why Leathan doesn’t continue to chase the kid—he has no motivation. For Leathan, there’s nothing at stake.
Or at least, there’s not enough at stake.
His only real incentives to continue this pursuit would be cash and some sort of fuzzy feeling about doing the right thing. The cash clearly would have an appeal to Leathan, but it’s a questionable motivator, especially when there’s a bigger issue at stake (the child) and the child is insufficiently motivating for a bigger story since Leathan has no relationship with the kid.
In short, at the end of Bag Man we have another situation, but for me, there is little scope for an interesting Leathan story. Now don’t get me wrong, there are lots of interesting kidnapping stories to be told—it’s just this one doesn’t feel very interesting to me.
Ideas Are Not Stories
As you’ll probably have guessed, story is something I tend to think about, a lot. And I’m sure you can also guess that it’s something I’m likely to talk about again.