Regardless of what you’ve heard, fiction is the oldest profession. Yep. Storytelling is a revered and time honored tradition amongst every culture and I’m here to personally assure you that at least a couple of days before caveperson A had sex with caveperson B in exchange for a shiny rock, caveperson B was already telling all his friends about how big a slut caveperson A was. You with me? Good.
So, then, if you want to tell me a story, that’s good. I’m all ears. I’m hardwired to care. Sure, it’s got to be a good story, and it’d help it was one I hadn’t heard before. It’d be even better if it was well plotted and paced and I came away with a greater appreciation for something, but whatever. If a story’s good, I’ll stick with it to the end, even if it lacks a couple of those things.
You know what isn’t a story? Jack won a trip to the top of Pike’s Peak. He wasn’t a very good climber, but that’s okay, because the price included a free helicopter ride to the top. Unbeknownst to Jack, the prize was really an elaborate way to get innocent people to the top of Pike’s Peak, where a rich and singularly bored murder sipped good red wine and talked to himaelf, awaiting the thrum of the chopper’s blades. Jack arrives. The helicopter leaves. As he turns to look out over the rest of the mountain range, our killer crunches through the snow toward him. Jack is unafraid, and remains so as he is pushed from behind and falls to his death. The end.
That’s not a story. That’s an anecdote. Jack didn’t have to make any choices on screen, and the one real choice he did make (deciding to go on the free trip) is made off screen, in addition to not being a very hard choice to make. Anecdotes are setups. They’re the verbal version of entrapment. You know where you do see good anecdotes? In jokes. Yep.
But not in stories. If your main character doesn’t influence the story in anyway other than by allowing plot things to happen to him, he’s weak. If Jack could be swapped with Jill, and the story still ends up with somebody breaking their crown on the way down from Pike’s Peak, then it’s time for you to write a character that pushes back.
And yes, caveperson A is a total slut. At least that’s what I heard…