What Does She Want? What's Stopping Her?

posted by Leann Sweeney

The title questions are important because they actually have to do with my writing process, but they seem particularly relevant this morning as I write this blog very late. What did I want? To write a blog for today. What was stopping me? THE PUKING VIRUS. I haven't had such a miserable stomachache since I worked with sick children. They were always passing along the latest and greatest puking virus. And I was always cleaning the puke up. But I digress. This blog is about writing and something that helped me to get better at it.

A long time ago, when I was consuming every bit of knowledge I could about how to write something that would sell, I came across an article in the front of one of the yearly Writer's Market books. You know. Those fat volumes that come out every year with information about where to sell your stuff. The book that for the most part is already dated and useless by publication. Yeah. That one. But this particular essay stuck with me because the author--and how I wish I could remember who it was--said every story needs four elements to create conflict and to draw the reader in. In no particular order:

What does your hero want?

What's stopping her?

What's her greatest strength?

What gets her in the most trouble?

I wrote those four questions down and taped them to my monitor. Today I don't need to be reminded to include these things in every story. Now these things are key to every story I write. I was reminded again during my writer's group this week that if any of these elements are lacking, the story does not resonate, the reader can, in fact, become confused. Such a simple little formula for success and yet, it works.

Any book or any class that teaches you about writing will mention "flaws." Give your character flaws. But this little lesson I learned reminded me to also give my characters strength and a mission. Isn't that what we all want, after all? I also am reminded here of one of my favorite quotes by Thoreau: "Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined." So I must infuse this desire in my characters as well. They must go confidently in the right direction--even if they screw up along the way.

And now, I will be going confidently in the direction of the bathroom. But it's not the life I imagined.

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