Contents

Expanding the basic story

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Expanding the basic story

The following builds on the ideas in Basic story structure.

In this chapter we’ll look at:

Complications
Reversals
Changing goals
Subtext
Subplots
Suspense

Complications

People want intriguing plots that will surprise them and keep them guessing. To build your story — add complications. Present your protagonist with a problem and think of ways of making the solution as hard as possible. And once they’ve solved one problem, give them another.

Take the movie First Blood (based on a novel by David Morrell). At the start of the story the ex-vet John Rambo is picked on by a small-town sheriff and his deputies. Rambo beats up the lawmen, escapes from jail and tries to run for the hills. This isn’t made easy: the writer throws in all sorts of complications to keep Rambo on his toes. First Rambo has to clothe himself to stop him freezing to death, then he has to fight a posse, then eliminate a pack of dogs, then he has to dodge a helicopter, then he injures himself falling out of a tree...

In Sense and Sensibility the elder Dashwood sisters are searching for suitable husbands but, just like Rambo, many complications are strewn in their path. First their father dies leaving them without money for a dowry, then they’re thrown out of their house, then they have to move miles away to the wilds of Devon, then they discover their chosen partners are promised to other people...

In any good story the problems will pile up, whether it’s an action movie, play or romantic novel. The complications start off small and get larger and larger. Each problem raises the stakes — the penalty for failure becomes greater and greater.

Reversals


Reversal image - Man and Lion

Reversals are big problems that come as an unpleasant surprise. The protagonist is well on the way to solving their original problem when the unexpected comes along and throws all their plans into confusion. In First Blood the appearance of the National Guard represents a reversal. Up till then Rambo had been doing quite well for himself. He’d beaten everyone sent against him and had looked on top of the situation. At this point Rambo could have escaped (making it a very short story) but the writer calls in the National Guard to put Rambo in his place. As it turns out the National Guard don’t defeat Rambo but they do make life difficult for him — they blow up a mountainside and trap him in an old mine. Rambo now has another complication to solve — to escape from a labyrinth of claustrophobic, rat-infested tunnels.

More examples of reversals:

In Raiders of the Lost Ark a serious reversal occurs during Indie’s escape on a tramp steamer. He thinks he’s got away with the Ark then finds his ship being hijacked by a U-boat.

In Sense and Sensibility both sisters suffer reversals. The elder Dashwood girl is devastated when she finds her gentleman friend is promised to someone else and her sister’s hopes are dashed when her young man moves to London.

In Star Wars the crew of the Millenium Falcon manage to escape from Tatooine and head for the safety of Alderaan, only to find the planet destroyed and themselves the prisoners of the Death Star.

Changing goals

A reversal often leads to a change in your protagonist’s gaol. Giving your main character a fresh objective is a good way of maintaining the surprise and excitement in a story.

In First Blood Rambo’s goal changes after he escapes from the mine. Instead of slipping away he sneaks back to the town and wreaks havoc. Rambo’s original goal was escape; now his goal is revenge. He wants to get his own back on the people who have hunted him so ruthlessly and the society he believes has rejected him, his thirst for revenge overriding his instinct for self preservation. Rambo’s escape at this point would have been an anti-climax, but his change of heart maintains the pace of the story and gives it an unexpected twist.

More examples of changing goals:

In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe the children’s original goal (to get home) is overtaken by a greater one — to help Aslan fight the forces of darkness.

In Babe the piglet’s original goal is to be accepted as a sheep-pig by the farm community. His goal changes when he’s entered into a sheep-dog trial; now he has to find a way to win to prevent the Farmer being humiliated.

In Ben Hur the goal of our hero is to revenge himself on Messala, the Roman who sent him to the galleys. After Messala is defeated Ben Hur is given another goal: to rescue his mother and sister from the Valley of the Lepers.

As you can see from the above, the secondary goal often leads to the climax of the story. However, not all stories involve changing goals, if in Sense and Sensibility the Dashwood sisters suddenly gave up their pursuit of husbands to become butterfly collectors the reader would feel cheated (not to say confused).

Subtext

Many plots have an underlying message; sometimes called the subtext. The movie The Man in the White Suit is about an eccentric scientist who develops a new fabric that never wears out or gets dirty. The scientist expects to be treated like a hero but the people who depend on clothes wearing out and getting dirty for a living (manufacturers, weavers, laundry workers) are horrified by the scientist’s invention because it will put them out of work. The basic story is about the scientist’s quest, but the subtext addresses the problems that societies face in coping with new technology.

Be subtle with subtext

If your subtext is too obvious your story might sound preachy and heavy handed; aim for a light touch: an entertaining story with a subtle underlying message.

An example of unsubtle subtext is found in the play A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams. The play is complex but deals mainly with the mental and physical decline of the principal character Blanche Dubois. During one heated scene the action is continually interrupted by a Mexican flower seller calling out “Flores para los muertos!” (“Flowers for the dead!”) a clumsy way of pointing out that the play is about mortality.

In a Star Trek episode called Let That Be Your Last Battlefield we meet two survivors of race whose skin is half white; half black. The pair hate each other because one is white on the left-hand side and the other is white on the right…it’s clunky.

Do you need a subtext?

A successful story doesn’t need to be loaded with underlying meanings (Raiders of the Lost Ark is pretty much pure action) but most contain some subtext. Some writers set out to write a basic, straightforward story and find that a second, deeper level of meaning develops by itself; others start with this deeper level and build a story on top of it.

If you’re having trouble developing your story look for deeper meanings within the text. If there are some they might suggest where you can go with your plot; if you can’t find any it might indicate your story hasn’t got anything significant at its core — no heart. In this case you might want to think of starting fresh on something else.

A theme or subtext (if it exists) can act like a rudder — it stays hidden under the surface but helps guide the ship (your story) to wherever it’s going.

Subplots

Subplots are mini-stories that run parallel to the main plot. They’re not obligatory, but can be useful.

Let’s say you’ve come up with a story where the protagonist is a young prospector who’s trying to reopen an abandoned gold mine, convinced he can find a lost motherlode of gold. This is the central plot, the main story. A subplot might involve the prospector’s father who’s dying from a chronic heart condition. The prospector is keen to save his Dad and if he discovers gold he’ll be able to pay for a heart-transplant.

While this subplot is separate from the main story, it also supports it. The Dying Dad subplot helps to establish the prospector’s character (he’s a nice guy who wants to save his father) and helps increase the tension. Without the Dad subplot the prospector is risking only his time and money, but including his father’s life raises the stakes. If the prospector doesn’t strike it rich, Dad’s going to kick the bucket.

Subplots also increase opportunities for creativity, allowing us to rack up the complications. Perhaps a large corporation offers to buy the mine from the prospector. If the prospector accepts the money he’ll have enough to pay for his Dad’s operation. However, the prospector is positive he’s close to finding the mother lode. If he sells out now he might be losing a fortune; but if he doesn’t, Dad might die! We’ve given our prospector an interesting moral dilemma. How will he deal with it? What will this reveal about his character?

Subplots can be useful in all sorts of ways, but they must have some relevance to the main story otherwise they’re just baggage. Imagine going through your story and crossing out all the details of a particular subplot, if you find a subplot that makes no difference to the main story get rid of it.

Suspense

One way of creating suspense is to give the audience advance warnings of problems your characters are unaware of. Imagine a movie where the protagonist is driving up a dusty side-road. They’re in a hurry and don’t notice a partially obscured sign standing at the roadside. But the camera does notice — it zooms in and we see the words ‘Unsafe Bridge’. We immediately have a situation full of suspense — what sort of wreck is lying ahead? 

Not all danger signs are so literal; if Granddad is taking care to conceal his bad cough from little Jimmy, it could mean he’s struggling with a serious illness. In Pride and Prejudice we’re given many hints that the youngest Bennett daughter is a tearaway who’ll get into trouble if she’s not careful. She isn’t; and she does.

Remember that advance warnings can be used only in stories where the audience learns things independently of your characters. For example, the bridge scene wouldn’t work in a novel written entirely from the First person or third person-inside perspective (see Narrative) in these cases the reader can be aware only of the things your protagonist sees and hears.

Let’s go back to our prospector tale. Perhaps the story is taking place in Africa, if so we might start the story with something dramatic, like a lion hunt. A man-eating lion is on the loose. A pair of hunters track the lion down but it ambushes them, kills them, and slinks back to its lair in a cave — a cave that’s the entrance to an abandoned mine-shaft!

By using the above opening we establish early on that the area surrounding the prospector’s mine is home to a man-eating lion. The prospector doesn’t know this (yet) but we do. This is now a situation full of suspense — each time the prospector steps out of his tent or goes for a walk we’ll wonder if the lion is waiting for him. Obviously at some point the lion will be waiting for him (there’s no point in creating a suspenseful situation if there’s no pay-off) but this climactic meeting needn’t be completely predictable…

Let’s say the corporation fails to buy the mine from the prospector. They turn to Plan B and send out a hit man to bump him off. The climax of the main story is a fight between the prospector and the hit man. A satisfying ending might involve the prospector looking down the wrong end of a gun — things are looking hopeless and the hit man’s finger is tightening on the trigger when the lion suddenly springs out of the bushes and kills him (perhaps the prospector got to know about the lion and deliberately led the assassin to its lair). In this case the lion provides a useful subplot that adds suspense to the main story and helps delivers a surprise ending.

You’ll find more on story development in Writing tips.


Main image: Everett Collection c/o Shutterstock

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