The Simple 5 Step Secret To Great Fiction
Stephen King says he starts his novels with a "What if?"
question. What if a woman and child are trapped in a car by a rabid dog? What if
a family pet buried in a Pet Semetary came back to life? What if a young girl
could start fires with her mind?
I have also heard many other bestselling
novelist such as Jodi Picoult, Janet Evanovich and Nicolas Evans lay claim to
the same thing.
And I have heard others say they just saw an image in their mind, or had a
persistent sentence knocking on the inside of their brains, and they just
followed that to where it lead them.
And while their insight and tutelage is invaluable, when I was a budding
writer it left me with another question.
It's all good and fine to have a starting point. In fact a starting point is
imperative. But in answering the question of "What next?" you will lift your
novel from "What if?" to "Howzat!"
So in answer to the "What next?" question, I defined the five essential
elements of any good story, whether it's a novel, a short story, a play or a
screenplay. Use these five elements to plan your story and you're guaranteed to
write a bestseller everytime.
Step One: Desire
It is essential that your main character want something. Even if it’s only a
glass of water, they must have an “object of desire” to pursue. It can be
anything from a way of escaping their predicament, or a way to bring their world
back into balance, but the key is that your main character must want something.
Without that you will not have a story.
This “desire line” is the golden thread that will run through your story.
For example, in a love story, the object of desire is the beloved. In a story
of illness, the object of desire may be anything from a medical specialist who
can treat the patient, to a specific medicine guaranteed to cure. In a failing
marriage, the object of desire could be the best divorce lawyer in town, or an
apartment of their own. It’s your choice and will be dictated by the type of
story you are writing.
Step Two: Conflict or Opposition
You will undoubtedly know that nothing ever moves forward in story except
through conflict. So once your main character knows what they want, there has to
be something or someone around to stop them. And the most powerful person, or
thing, to oppose the main character is the one who can put the most pressure on
them and force them to change.
It’s critical to remember this: the strength of any story is directly related
to the strength of the opponent. If it’s easy for the main character to reach
their goal, then where’s the challenge? Where’s the drama? Where’s the struggle
for growth and change?
The Harry Potter novels kept us on the edge of our seats for seven books and
ten years because of the promise of a showdown between Harry and Lord Voldemort.
The success of Star Wars hinged on the multilayered battle between Darth Vader
and Luke Skywalker. The Bourne series enthrals us because it's one man against
In our earlier examples, the opponent in the love story is always the lover.
If boy meets girl and they get together and live happily ever after, where is
the story? There isn’t one! So the lover must resist in some way. In the case of
the illness, the main opponent could be a government department that is
withholding approval for a drug that will cure you, or it could be a lack of
funds to travel overseas to see that one specialist who can treat you. And in
the failing marriage, the opponent would be the other marriage partner, who is
either trying to send you broke or stopping you from moving out.
Really take the time to explore your opponent. They can often be the most
interesting character in the story!
Step Three: Moral Dilemma
The conflict must build so that your main character is forced into a corner,
where they must make a decision that challenges their values.
There is only one question you need to ask yourself at this stage, and that
is, “how can I push my main character into a place where they feel as though
they are stuck between a rock and a hard place?” The decision they make here
must be a true test of their core values, and whatever decision they make needs
to tip them into the most intense conflict of the story, where they battle the
opponent in a do-or-die climax to your story.
For example, in the love story, your character may be forced to choose
between love and security, or love and family, as they enter new territory in
the relationship stakes. In the illness story, your character may need to choose
between health and authority, or health and pride, if they are forced to ask for
charity to finance their overseas trip. And in the case of the divorced couple,
your main character may be forced to choose between freedom and control, or
financial security and love, depending on the scenario you choose.
One way or the other, your character has to make a choice and this choice
sends your story into its most intense conflict.
Step Four: The Battle or Climax
You are now entering the most intense conflict of the story and the action
here must take place between your main character and the main opponent. This is
the classic “fight” scene, or where the great revelation comes out, where you
can otherwise surprise or shock your readers. Push it out there! Allow whatever
comes out to come out onto the page. Remember you are just exploring your story
here. If it goes too far you can pull it back in the writing or the editing.
Just remember that the most powerful climax will be one that brings about
absolute and irreversible change.
It’s a good idea to explore your character’s highs and lows at this time. By
this I mean look at how they can behave really badly, as we often do when we are
pushed into a corner. Does your character come out swinging, or do they submit
and surrender? Neither answer is wrong or right. It will depend entirely on your
Step Five: Resolution
Every good story asks a question at the beginning. Whether it's a Stephen
King "What if?" question, or something entirely different, it's imperative that
you answer the question here. How can you show your character having learned
their lesson? How are they seeing themselves clearly for the first time? What
impact does that have on those around them? What is the "solution" to your
I recommend not spending too much time planning this final step, as it almost
always simply comes out in the writing. Stories that you are meant to write have
a way of just coming out the way they need to, and too much planning of the
ending will make it seem contrived.
So those are our five simple steps to great fiction. Have a character who
wants something, add something or someone who tries to stop them, put them in an
impossible situation, watch them fight their way out and see what they learn in
About the Author:
Suzanne Harrison is the Director of Writers Central, an online creative writing
school and community. Known as the High Priestess of Fiction, she is the author
of four bestselling creative writing, short story and novel courses. You can
find her at