Every story is about a problem that needs to be solved, and the protagonist is the only one who can do it. That’s basically the definition of plot: the constant struggle of the character(s) to solve an intolerable problem and (re)establish order. But how do you make that problem increasingly difficult and complex enough to sustain a whole story?
It doesn’t matter if the problem is personal and unfolds on a small scale, or if it’s huge and affects everyone else along with the protagonist. It also doesn’t matter if that problem is generated by something bad that just happens to the protagonist, if it’s caused by the antagonist, other characters, or the protagonist himself. The only thing that matters is that, as soon as possible in the story, your protagonist is faced with a problem he cannot ignore and relentlessly tries to solve for the rest of the story.
But damn those stairs and call me Trippy, things are never that simple.
Your protagonist must face increasing adversity and defeat terrible odds, and by the time he will save the day, he will be forever affected by what’s happened. This is the basic course of any gripping story, and one of the first things we learn when we start writing. It’s also one the aspects of storytelling that is most difficult to master beyond a superficial level.
So let’s take this theoretical mambo-jumbo apart and boil it down to something concise, something you can write on the wall in front of your desk. Let’s see what all this “complicating matters for the protag” business is really about.
The single most important thing that you need to etch into the folds of your smooshy idea-machine is this: story equals problem. If you don’t have a problem that begs to be solved, you don’t have a story. You set up (or hint at) the story’s core problem in the inciting incident, and the entire length of the book your protagonist will try to solve it, bit by bit, piece by piece, until he eventually succeeds (or definitively fails) at the end. The key here is at the end.
As soon as you solve the problem, the story ends. So do not ever, under any circumstance, even if the voices tell you to and promise cookies, solve a problem in your story successfully before the actual end. Whatever your protagonist accomplishes along the way must be flipped on its head or destroyed. Without exception. As soon as you cut him some slack, you also cut the tension cord and the story is over. But how do you keep increasing the tension?
Whenever you write a scene, ask yourself this: does the protagonist solve the problem he’s facing?
Now, there are only two possible answers that will lead to the creation of a captivating, escalating story that keeps readers turning the pages.
Does the protagonist solve the problem at hand?
1. YES, BUT
YES he solves the problem he’s facing at the moment, BUT he’s now confronted with a different, bigger problem as a result of that.
YES, he escapes the police chasing after him, BUT he’s forced to hide on the turf of a gang and is discovered by a trigger-happy drug lord;
YES, he saves his girl from the antagonist, BUT now they’re stuck on his island hideout and the damn maniac has pressed the self-destruct button;
YES, he kills the monstruous alien that’s after him and his team, BUT he’s awakened the super-monstruous alien-mom and she’s damn pissed about it.
For every little step the protagonist makes toward his ultimate goal, he must make two steps backward. Never let him solve a bit of the puzzle without making things even worse as a direct result of his actions.
The other possible answer to our driving questions about whether the protagonist solves the problem at hand, is:
2. NO, FURTHERMORE
NO he does not solve the immediate problem he’s facing, FURTHERMORE he gets himself even deeper into it as a result.
NO, he does not get the girl even though he won the game, FURTHERMORE he makes enemies out of his childhood chums who play for the other team;
NO, he does not figure out who his brother’s killer is, FURTHERMORE he faces legal charges for breaking into the police station’s achives;
NO, he does not rescue the little girl he went into enemy territory for, FURTHERMORE he’s emptied his last magazine down to a single bullet and he’s stuck behind the line;
Make sure that if you have your protagonist fail at the task at hand, he doesn’t just get to move away from the failure with a quivering lip. Make that failure have consequences for the rest of the story to follow.
If you want to write a fast paced story with a course of action that tumbles down into the pit of disaster in an organic, natural and increasingly captivating way, remember to never allow the protagonist to have a real success along the way, or your story is over. Instead, have his successes and his failures make things worse and take him ever deeper into the rabbit hole. And once he’s deep enough, have him retrieve my lost gerbil, will you?