The first step for any writer-to-be is to find the idea. Depending on the desired length and complexity of the project at hand, that can be its own epic struggle. But whether it hits you like a lightning bolt or is painstakingly built through exercises and brainstorming, once you have “the idea,” you’re practically there, right?
Well, I should clarify. Maybe wrong. For some artists and writers, they just need a starting point and off they go into the unknown. The thrill and fear of navigating the abyss without a map is a large part of the joy of creating, and so they don’t mind. Part of me wants to try this technique, but the rest of me is terrified. And I already have enough fear and doubt ahead.
So now that I have an idea, imperfect as it may be, I have to go about developing it. I’ve written extensively on “developing ideas,” but each idea is different. For this one, I have the setting, the major characters (that I know of so far), and the general/overall plot. But now I’m sort of stuck wavering at the stage where a vague idea becomes a story becomes a draft…
Because the plot I’m working with is of an epic variety, the first step is to break off a manageable chunk to start with. It’s not about the first “book,” just the first “story,” which can be any length it needs to be. I don’t care if I end up with a one-page story or an entire saga, as long as it’s finished.
I know the general place the story starts, but the “main” plotline is very vague to start, a sense of mystery and threat and destiny hanging in the background. That’s fine, but it means I need to figure out what’s going on in the foreground. The set-up takes the form of a job, which can generate immediate conflicts but potentially boring ones.
Taking a cue from, what else, Harry Potter, perhaps the best place to start is to develop a sub-conflict from a part of the main conflict. In the first HP novel, Voldemort’s plan to get the sorcerer’s/philosopher’s stone and come back to life is completely stopped, but he himself goes on. Thus the first story is complete, but the epic story is not. The challenge in this strategy is that you risk making the story look stretched and forced when it doesn’t need to be; HP succeeds because it’s charming and entertaining and feels like an organic action on Voldemort’s part (in my opinion, Goblet of Fire is the most ‘stretched’ because I feel like there had to be an easier way to kidnap Harry than an elaborate tournament, but I digress—and I still love it).
So I’m going to look for potential sub-conflicts that might be perfect for the opening story. Does the villain need something in order to start their plan? Or do they have a lackey that the hero doesn’t know is working for the villain’s greater plan? What about an aspect of their plan that can be stopped without defeating them entirely?
The first priority of this first story for me is to develop the hero’s motivation. I know what the villain wants and why, and the general plan they have to get it—a little more immediate development might help here. But why does this hero want to stop them? I mean, why do they want to go out of their way and risk their lives to stop them? That’s what I need to build in my protagonist, and that’s what this first story can accomplish.
Although it’s an easy (and emotional) option, I’d like to avoid fridging a character to accomplish this. That would mean taking a character the hero is close to and letting the villain kill them off in order to motivate the hero. It’s powerful, which is why it’s so common as to be a cliché, but besides its familiarity it also tends to cheapen the character who dies. I have a little bit of this going on in the backstory anyway, so I’m not going to go in for seconds.
Realizing exactly what the villain is up to, and thus raising the stakes for the villain’s defeat, is a more generic option but can work—if the hero is the type to respond to it. The nature of my story means that the hero is uniquely situated to take on the villain, so from the standpoint of opportunity, they have it. But now I’m working on motive, and while doing something for the good of the world is a pretty universal motivation, it feels a bit… meh.
One trick that might work to spice up this more generic option is to make the villain personally heinous. That way, while part of the hero wants to stop the villain because it’s the “right thing to do,” the rest of them wants to stop the villain because they’re just evil and nasty. This doesn’t mean the villain shouldn’t be complex, but sometimes a good old nasty villain can work wonders for making a story compelling.
By combining the moral goal of stopping the villain’s plan with the more personal goal of stopping this particular hated villain, it hopefully creates a motivation the readers want to see victorious.
This villain might have to be a lackey or sub-villain if the main villain has to be more secretive and off-screen… so I’ll have to think about that. And I need to keep the hero’s goals in mind even from the very beginning, because that’s what drives the story. But for now, the plan to develop a “sub-villain” with a nasty temperament who the hero wants to stop—before revealing the main villain and their plan with the epic stakes—might be a good place to start in making strides towards a draft.
Some things to think about…