Archived Article of The Month


Asking the Right Questions

c. 1998 by Alicia Rasley

I'm not really a very structured writer, or rather, what structure I write with is internalized, integrated from 40 years of reading and 30 years of writing. Subconsciously, and later consciously, as an English major and teacher, I analyzed stories for their structure. All that had an effect. Now, though I can't usually outline a structure ahead of time, give me a story start and I'll find "the story within" and "the structure within". It's a modest talent, but a useful one in critiquing.

Trouble is, it doesn't help much when I'm writing an article about structure! That is, I don't seem to have an existing external edifice, if you will pardon the alliteration, like "the three-act structure" or "the twelve-step journey" that are so popular in Hollywood and make so much sense when I see them all laid out. They make sense, that is, until I try to write like that. I know others have done wonders writing books based on the twelve steps of the hero's journey, but I get antsy, and very soon my hero is skipping Step 7 and rearranging Steps 9, 10, and 11.... compass

What works best for me is to find the organic structure within the story, whatever that is, and explore the various ways I can develop that. This works well in critiquing too-- frequently I say, "Well, what your hero has to overcome is his detachment and his belief that emotions are dangerous, and so he's going to have to be forced to feel by the events of the plot--" and the writer will cry, "You must be reading my mind!" No, I'm reading the story, or what there is of it so far, or rather reading the character and imagining what will get him launched on his own journey.


Joseph Campbell, who analyzed myth to come up with "the hero's journey", and Chris Vogler, who applied Campbell's work to fiction-writing in The Writer's Journey, had the right of it. The story is a journey, the journey of the central character (the protagonist) through a highly charged series of significant events which reshape his or her life.

I don't think every journey is going to follow the twelve steps outlined by Vogler and Campbell (not every hero is reluctant, for one thing), but every writer can benefit from keeping the journey model in mind. Where is your protagonist going-- that is, where do YOU want the protagonist to go (that's not necessarily where the character wants to go!)? This is often a psychological journey, not just progress towards and achievement of a goal. What does he need to overcome? How does she need to change? What conflicts must be resolved?

Of course, the protagonist has a journey in the external plot. She is going to solve that murder, or grab that Holy Grail, or win that promotion. That's her conscious, chosen journey. Your task as a writer is often to send her on sidetrip, an internal journey. compass

In protagonist-centered popular fiction, this journey will generally be towards greater maturity or self-understanding or happiness-- that is, towards a better life or a better self. (In "litfic"-- contemporary literary fiction-- the journey might be towards despair or existential angst or dissolution, but still usually involves some personal or life change.) The protagonist is different at the end than at the beginning, can do something more than she could do at the opening of the book, or has earned something valuable (like love, or self-acceptance, or a home).

Here's my radical thesis: The primary purpose of the plot is to give the protagonist a reason to change in the direction she needs to change.

In other words, that clever murder mystery is more than an intellectual puzzle for the reader. It can serve as a vehicle for the character's journey to growth.

This doesn't mean you have to give up your clever, complex plot-- only that you give it the additional purpose of character-propulsion. That's really easier than it sounds. Just think of it this way: What protagonist could most benefit from the events of this plot?

Now benefit is a funny word to use, because your protagonist is very likely not going to perceive these events as beneficient. In fact, he might very well think he's been cursed by the gods! That's because we generally don't change unless we're forced to, especially if the change is towards the sort of growth that will require more strength and endurance and courage from us. After all, if it were easy to become better people, we'd do it in a minute, right? But it's not. It's hard to overcome the inertia of life, of habit, of familiarity, to take on the challenge of change. That's why we need to give our characters the external conflict that will cause them, once and for all, to confront their internal conflicts and resolve them.



Let's take an example-- the priest sleuth. Say you start with the idea of a mystery thriller that takes place in the upper realms of the Catholic church. The murder victim is the cardinal. The murder site is the cathedral, the time of death sometime before Easter Mass, the discovery of the body just after Mass, as the priest exits from the sanctuary. You've got a hot premise (murder in the cathedral!) and a noteworthy situation-- the church hierarchy. And you've got a good plot-- the cardinal was murdered by the bishop who hoped to be named in his place. And there's that other essential component, the investigator/sleuth, who just happens to be the priest who discovers the body.

There's your external plot. That will guide you to all sorts of other elements:

Story question: Who killed the cardinal?

Protagonist goal: Identify the murderer.

Protagonist motivation: Justice.

Plot journey: Priest is drawn into investigating when police arrest a street kid for the crime. He searches for clues at the murder site, then starts asking questions among the employees of the cathedral, and knows he's onto something when someone tries to kill him. He sifts through the evidence he's attained and realizes the murderer had to be someone high up in the archdiocese. In a climactic scene, he gathers together all the bishops and archbishops and tricks the murderer into betraying himself.

Good plot. Good sleuth. But something's missing.... emotional involvement.

If you want to give the readers more than a merely intellectual experience, where they try to figure out the mystery before the sleuth does, you need more than an external plot journey.

If you want the mystery to be more than just a blip in your sleuth's life, you need to send him on a psychological or emotional journey too.

That's where the internal conflict comes in. That's whatever internal issue or problem the plot forces the protagonist to confront. This adds an additional layer to your story, and greater coherence and plausibility too. After all, most people aren't driven to risk their lives to unmask a murderer-- that's why we pay for a police force. This sleuth, if he's to be more than a serial mystery-solver, has to have a good reason, however unconscious, for taking on this task.

And that reason is to grow. Whether he knows it or not, the priest's life and self are constrained by some internal demon. Only the dramatic and extreme events of this external plot will be enough to make him confront that demon and resolve it, or risk letting a murderer go free.


The goal of story coherence -- everything in the story working together for a profound overall effect-- is served when the plot events (so dry and generic above) are developed to bring this particular protagonist's internal conflict to the surface. While the basic structure will remain the same (the sleuth will search for clues, put them together, unmask the murderer), the individual scenes will take on greater individuality and force as they not only progress towards solving the murder, but also reveal and resolve the internal conflict.

That is, the specific internal conflict will shape the course of the plot journey, and heighten the dramatic tension of the story events.

So let's look at what's going on within those story events listed above. Right away I notice that the murder is an authority figure. Maybe the police think it's just a particularly nasty example of random street violence, or an unusually tasteful burglar after the gold altar fixtures, but in the end the sleuth will reveal that the real murderer is a man of God, indeed, a Big Man in Church. So there's an echoing theme of the bringing down of authority-- the bishop brings down the cardinal, and the priest brings down the bishop.

I don't know about you, but I find that intriguing. And I want to explore that theme of authority. I can do that by figuring out the priest-sleuth's atttitude towards authority and making that a significant motivation (if unconscious) in his decision to investigate the murder. compass

This is where I start to individualize. For example, the priest can be a rebel. He hates authority. He doesn't like the power bishops and cardinals have. He thinks they waste the power of the church and the money too on trivial things like expensive vestments and fine Communion wines. He wants to bring the church back to its roots among the poor and outcast.

It's no surprise that he will be willing to take on the church hierarchy. He does it every day of the week, after all. So he takes on the establishment, searches boldly for the facts, refuses to be intimidated by the assembled power of the bishopry. And at great risk to himself and his career, he forges ahead until he discovers and reveals the truth in all its sordid glory-- that the bishop he despises most killed the cardinal, out of greed and ambition, just as he suspected.

Ummm.... what's wrong with this story?

Why doesn't it work?

After all, the rebel priest has motivation in his burning passion for truth and justice, and he's got conflict in his constant flouting of authority and the retaliatory actions of the church hierarchy. Isn't that enough?

Well, no. Has he learned anything? Not that authority can be bad. He knew that already. Not that rebels encounter opposition from those in power. He's already experienced that in his other battles with the bigwigs. How has he changed? He's probably a bit more smug, since his claim that authority is corrupt and hypocritical and unworthy got proved right in the end. He's likely to be interviewed on the evening news shows, and maybe that'll open up a new career for him, Father Wapner in the People's Confessional! And he's been tested. Now he knows that he really can stand up against authority and win.

Trouble is, his life and career might be at stake, but his identity never is. He never has to question whether he's really a rebel after all, or if he's truly a moral man surrounded by immoral ones. At the end, as at the beginning, he's a lone voice of truth in a wilderness of lies... only now everyone thinks he's cool.

Yes, he's got problems throughout the story, but all of them are mostly from the outside-- the skeptical police, the lying bishop, the retaliating authorities. He suffers, in a way, but the suffering is that of a martyr, unjust and externally created. He never has to face the long dark night of the soul, because he knows all along he's on the side of the angels. In fact, he's in great danger of being... holier than thou.

Let's face it. This guy needs some internal conflict.

Let's give it to him.

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