The greatest challenge an author faces when preparing to write is choosing a worthwhile subject for their work.
This may seem trivial at the moment of conceiving, but having a faulty premise kills works-in-progress in their tracks and manifests in various problems difficult to track back to their source.
I don’t have an orthodox method for selecting a subject in mind: if you’re a plot-focused writer or a character-focused writer (Jeff Gerke writes about this in his Plot Versus Character), you will start from a different point. I often work around a theme or motif and take some time to figure out the subject once I’ve developed the message, but I’m cerebral in my approach to stories because of my background as a teacher.
Ultimately, choosing a subject will come down to the personality, proclivity, and aptitude of the writer. However, you can rule out poor subjects by applying a simple test.
What is important first and foremost is authenticity. You need to find four elements, to begin a story. If you don’t have these, it’s likely that the story doesn’t go anywhere (or begin anywhere) and the whole thing will fall apart.
These are also not the be-all, end-all of stories. You will have more plot and backstory than fit within these four points, but without these you wind up with a recipe for disaster.
- The Initiation
- The Development
- The Crisis
- The Resolution
The initiation is your inciting incident. You can have prior exposition, and you probably should, but most writers are competent with exposition when they know they’re doing it.
Initiation serves as the point at which the story becomes interesting. Good prose and interesting settings or characters can draw a reader in (think of Steinbeck’s Salinas Valley in Of Mice and Men), but the story itself is only being teased at that point.
Your character will go through a change, typically for the worse. One challenge that modern storytellers face is the idea that arcs should always trend upward, fostered by an incomplete understanding of the Hero’s Journey derived from the work of Joseph Campbell.
The initiation is almost always horrible for the protagonist. Having the chosen one come home to roost only works if it deprives them of the comfort of their old life and forces them into moral conflict.
A good example of an initiation comes in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, where Frodo gets his quest from Gandalf. Despite being the only person who is really fit to take the ring–the Hero’s Journey states that the hero must be the only person fit for purpose–Frodo doesn’t come across as unnaturally gifted and the road ahead still holds challenges for him.
Upon completing the initiation, the protagonist is important to the story and can no longer be replaced.
If one is going for a traditional narrative, the initiation needs therefore to be an event that is world-altering for the protagonist, and world-confirming outside that context. It is also a good idea to set up the consequences of the protagonist’s failure in exposition before or during the initiation.
A quick aside for less traditional narratives: Zamyatin’s We, one of the first dystopian novels, strips its protagonist of importance in its later sections. To emphasize the dehumanization of its characters it turns them, effectively and later literally, into automata. This works in a very specific context, but also makes the novel feel different.
A general rule for initiations in different forms:
Hero’s Journey: Hero becomes special, or discovers how special they are, during the initiation. The world accepts them as this.
Antiheroic (Kafkaesque): The hero is not special, but may believe themselves to be. Alternatively, the hero is special, but does not believe themselves to be.
Tragedy: The hero is special, but the initiation shows a fatal flaw and proves them unfit for the world.
Next week I will go into more detail about the development aspect of choosing a subject.