Thursday, January 22, 2015

First Steps: Situation or Story?

I've heard a lot of great ideas for stories from people over the years. The problem? They describe a situation, not a story.

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 for more information and free writing tools. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.


  1. Great post! The distinction is very helpful.

    1. Some might say that in literary fiction, especially short fiction, crafting language to illustrate a vignette is sufficient. But that is why I so often find them boring. Goals and obstacles can be very subtle.

  2. This is an excellent piece, Diana. Relating situational facts does not a story make. However, it could if the writer just took it a step further.

    You're so right about each chapter having its own conflict as indicated by character actions and responses. You might even break that down to each scene, albeit perhaps more subtle in most of these cases.

    1. It makes it more interesting if all of the main characters have goals, especially when the goals conflict. More than one character in a scene can be running their agenda.

  3. Bingo! I don't want to feel the author's angst ... I want to be taken on a ride.

  4. Donald Maass speaks of "microtension" where every paragraph includes some kind of tension, something to make the reader want to read the next paragraph. I also think Deb Dixon's classic GMC (Goal, Motivation, Conflict) can help a writer take that situation and move it into storyland.

    1. During editing, you can feel it when you are glued to the page and when you start skim reading. If you're skim reading, the reader will too.

  5. Great post, Diana. I think one of the main problems in series is the manufactured cliffhanger so the reader buys the next book. You get to the end and say, Huh? For me, that's trickery. There's no resolution, and that's why readers read to the end of the book. I'm with you when it comes to most literary novels, especially those that leave the story up in the air. I want a goal and an ending. Some stories don't have to be tied up in a nice, neat bow, but they can leave the reading with the feeling that things will work out. That's okay with me.

  6. debby turner harrisJanuary 22, 2015 at 11:13 AM

    "Literary fiction" writers of the Raymond Carver persuasion have a lot to answer for in terms of jettisoning narrative tension and plot in favour of mere atmosphere for its own sake. I salute you as a fellow-advocate of the well-told tale which features both.

  7. We debate this in our critique group. They are used to me saying, "But what is the point?" of this chapter or short story. :)


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