There is another tip, though, that transcends opinion to become holy writ. I’ve seen it work wonders for writers who have struggled to move forward without ever really wrapping their head around it. With a more open mind, though (and yes, it’s a shame that we sometimes need an open mind to see that which is simply, obviously and always true, in writing and in life), it can change your writing journey the moment you see it, provided it parts the curtain of your understanding:
It isn’t a story until something goes wrong.
Not bad! I think this is (almost) universally true (but not quite). The author of the post — Larry Brooks — is thinking about real stuff actively going wrong:
… newer writers in particular get stuck writing about something — a character, a place, a time, an issue, all without plot-driven conflict or antagonism other than the hero’s inner issues — rather than writing about something happening in the context of something gone wrong for your protagonist, launching the hero on a dramatic quest that unfolds under escalating pressure from antagonistic opposition, threat, urgency and emotionally-resonant stakes.
You see? Something goes actively wrong, leading or forcing the protagonist into an active quest.
This is basically going to be true for SFF, certainly, but true universally? I’m not sure I think so. As you may have noted by now, I am not crazy about much of the literary fiction I’ve tried — I have totally, utterly hated some of the literary fiction I’ve tried — but even so I would say that something can go wrong internally for the protagonist and that counts as something going wrong and can drive a story. Possibly not a story I would want to read, but a story. I’m thinking of MADAME BOVARY here, incidentally, where what goes wrong is all internal (as I recall) and the protagonist’s “quest” is more a sinking into ennui. (As I recall! I read it twice (ugh!), but it was a long time ago). I can think of other literary titles where this was the basic idea.
Now, to be fair, I tried to think of a book with little in the way of active stuff happening that I actually really loved. For example, a story like IN THIS HOUSE OF BREDE by Rumer Godden, which is one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read. It is a quiet novel about a woman who becomes a nun. Everything that matters is internal there, too.
That whole thing about opposition, threat and urgency is not the point of books like this. Can one say that stuff goes wrong for the protagonist? Maybe, sort of, but quietly wrong, and the external problems are not the point of the book. I think it would be stretching a point to say this kind of novel fits the rule above.
On the other hand, for SFF, it seems to me it is pretty much always true that you don’t have a story until something goes wrong.
Somebody on a panel … Sarah Beth Durst maybe? … I’m not sure, but whoever it was said, You start your story where things change irrevocably for your protagonist. That’s not quite the same thing, but it’s close, and it stuck with me because I think it’s pretty much true as well. I will say, I’ve started books at a different point than that and done the moment-when-things-irrevocably-changed in the backstory. (THE FLOATING ISLANDS.) Still, I think that’s a useful way of looking at where to start a story. And then generally the story moves forward because of things that go wrong — more and more wrong till the protagonist & co. finally win out over whatever antagonist or circumstances.