There are four storytelling basics that writers at all levels of skill tend to get wrong. They’re called basics because, without them, any story simply will not grab and hold your readers attention. We are going to list all four here and explain why they are crucial and how you can avoid making these mistakes in your stories.
1: The Protagonist Needs a Goal
For a story to work, the protagonist needs to have a goal. A protagonist with no goal has no reason to engage with the story, no reason to even get out of bed in the morning. A goal-less protagonist will be dragged through the story, bored and complaining as he’s faced with events she has no reason to care about.
The protagonist is the audience’s eyes. They’re the one the audience has been trained to identify with over years — decades — of being told and watching stories. If even your protagonist has no reason to care about what’s happening in the story, then why should the audience?
2: The Goal Needs to be Specific
Your protagonist goal needs to be something specific. Here’s an example: your protagonist wants to be happy. That’s good, that’s relatable, we all want to be happy, we can relate. But how will your protagonist happy? What should he do? The goal is so vague there is no sense of where to begin, or even when he’ll be done.
Now a clear goal is easier to get behind. It also gives the story a sense of direction and a clear endpoint. So maybe your protagonist wants to be happy, and somewhere in the first act he discovers that being around computers makes him happy, so decides he wants to graduate with a major in computer science within the three years. That’s better, now we have a win-condition, an endpoint. When the protagonist graduates, he’ll be happy.
Maybe things won’t go so well for him in the end. But until the story ends, the protagonist will have something to work towards, and the audience will have something to keep them engaged. It works.
3: There is Opposition to that Goal
Well, first it helps to define the meaning of “opposition” here. Opposition is whatever gets in the protagonist’s way. Yes, a mustache-twirling villain is a type of opposition. But so is, for example, being broke and needing money to achieve a goal. Or having to handle a broken leg without medical attention. Opposition is obstacles; problems that need to be dealt with.
Problems and obstacles are key to a story. Without them, the protagonist is free to achieve their goal on page one. Which would make the protagonist happy, but “I needed a hundred dollars, so I got it from my wallet and went to sleep” isn’t much of a story, is it? Similar to the lack of a goal, the lack of opposition leaves the character with no reason to do anything. The goal is just achieved without a struggle. You get a similar problem if the opposition is too weak.
4: The Protagonist has to Struggle
The struggle is an extension of the last point we just talked about. Opposition is, of course, pointless if the protagonist doesn’t engage with it. And generally pointless if it’s too easy to deal with.
Keep in mind that “strong” and “weak” opposition isn’t defined by how much muscle mass, how well armed, or how evil the opposition is. It’s defined by how hard it is for the protagonist to deal with said opposition.
Take the Joker. Specifically the Dark Knight Return’s version of the Joker. In that movie, Joker isn’t a match for Batman in a fist fight. He isn’t even that proficient with guns. He is, however, an anarchist who is uniquely proficient at dreaming up the most terrible ways to test a human’s soul. And, to make things worse, he’s also very good at making those dreams into reality.
He’s the Paladin of Chaos to match Batman’s nature as the Knight of Order. He makes for a strong opposition because he is not only hard to stop and hard to catch, but also because his aim is to attack Batman’s morals and his status as a symbol directly, make him question himself and push his limits beyond the limits of what he’d usually consider moral.
Good opposition will help the story’s conflict ramp up into a climatic and hopefully satisfying ending. So keep these four basics in mind next time you are planning a story.