Today I want you to take your character, and their desire and cripple them not once, but twice. Of course you get to reward them with a little win in the middle.
Give your character a goal, frustrate them, let them make some progress but let it come at a cost.
Think about Star Wars, the great story-outliner’s tool: Luke wants to get off this boring little planet but his aim is frustrated by obligations and lack of opportunity. When his family is murdered he finally acts. His next aim is to find and rescue the sexy princess (spoiler alert: Ew!). Problem: she’s on the most heavily defended, most technologically advanced ship in the fleet of the all-powerful empire. Somehow he succeeds. Yay! BUT, oh no, they sacrifice Obi-Wan, his mentor, at the same time. Now Luke has a new mission: overthrow the empire. Fail, Strive, Succeed but at a cost, pursue next part of his ‘want’. [Check out this Narrative Map of the Hero’s Journey]
Put your character in an impossible situation. Let him dig his way out only to fall into a new pit. Only this time he knows a bit more about himself and what it’ll take to climb out. (Friends? A rope? Strong hands?) Let the character use what they learned in the first part of the middle, to achieve what they need to do next.
It doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom or drama. If you’re writing humor you can still do this. Frustration is funny. Even throwing in a moment of tragedy is acceptable in comic writing. In fact, if you’re making your reader laugh until 2/3 of the way through the story, they won’t even notice the knife in your hand until you’re sliding it between their ribs. Bam! Will that pack an emotional punch?! (Sitcoms do this from time to time. Aren’t you surprised to find yourself suddenly sobbing during your favorite 30 minute comedy?)
One of the best pieces of advice I received for writing short stories was to make your character want something. Once your character wants something you have a structure for the whole story: put obstacles in their way and see how they react.
Create a character who wants something really badly, then thwart them at every turn.
This story can be realistic, or high-fantasy; historical or far-future; tragic or comic. The strength of this prompt is that it focuses on character. No matter where you set it, you can make it realistic by having your character react to being thwarted in a way that feels familiar to your reader.
You get to decide whether your character gets what they want at the end or not.
Read Fight City (An Irish Jimmy Gallagher Novelette) by last week’s guest prompter James Scott Bell for a really fun example of how you can spin out this kind of ‘thwartage’ for a whole novella (it’s only $0.99 but you may also borrow it for free under Kindle lending plan).
Here’s a short-short story from Mary Robinette Kowal that demonstrates how a simple ‘want’ can sustain a whole story and help create rounded characters out of somewhat surprising source-material. (I highly recommend the Writing Excuses podcast that Mary co-presents with Brandon Sanderson, Dan Wells and Howard Tayler. It doesn’t often focus on the short story, but it is always inspiring and only 15 minutes long.)