Writer: "This girl is in this really unhappy relationship. I mean the guy is an obvious psycho, but she just can't leave him."
Me: "So it's a woman in peril story. She has to escape the psycho boyfriend?"
Writer: "No. It isn't that kind of story."
Me: "So what kind of story is it?"
Writer: "It's about abusive relationships."
Me: "So what does your character do about it? What makes her realize the danger? How does she get away?"
Writer: "She can't leave. That's the point. Women get trapped in these things and they can't get out. There's no one that really helps them."
Me: "True. So what happens in this story?"
Writer: "This woman lives with his horrible guy. And he does (fill in list of awful things)."
Me: "And she learns to fight back?"
Writer: "No, no. She can't fight back or he'll kill her."
While all of this may be true, and the author could highlight this plight in a nonfiction article, this isn't a story with structure.
For it to become a story, the main character trapped in a hellish situation becomes the hero by finding a way out. A catalyst comes along that makes the situation untenable enough that she is forced to take action. It could be a literary story. It could be a thriller, or even a police procedural.
But, until the character defines a goal, makes a decision or takes action, and faces obstacles, it's just a situation. The story could have a down ending. The woman could try and fail and try again and end up dead. Not too many readers would love the ending, but it would be a realistic cautionary tale. The struggle for safety is the story.
A situation is Dick being in an unhappy marriage. The story begins when something comes along to make him want to leave it or fix it.
A situation is Sally hating her job. The story begins when she is fired, competing for a promotion, or finds the courage to start her own company.
A situation is Jane being betrayed by a friend. The story begins when Jane decides to do something about it: get revenge, confront and heal, or make her friend see the error of her ways in a misguided fashion.
A story goal with obstacles and responses are the gears that power narrative. You can write pages and pages of anecdotes that, while entertaining, do nothing to propel the story forward.
If you can't identify a central conflict and resolution of your plot, you could be illustrating a situation and that is how you lose readers.
Every chapter should include conflict represented by obstacles and responses. Every chapter should show characters moving toward or away from the goal until they reach the final outcome.
There's nothing worse than turning pages and wondering what the whole point of a chapter was. If I have to go back and reread it, looking for a point, the book goes in the "to be burned" pile.
As you go through your first draft, make sure each scene pulls its weight. Don't waste the reader's precious time, or you might find your book in ashes, your name blackened in the process.
To learn more about obstacles and responses, check out Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict.
Diana Hurwitz is the author of Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of Conflict, Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict, Story Building Blocks III: The Revision Layers, and the YA adventure series Mythikas Island. Her weekly blog, Game On: Crafting Believable Conflict explores how characters behave and misbehave. Visit DianaHurwitz.com for more information and free writing tools. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.