Ordinary Does Not Mean Boring

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As someone living with (diagnosed) autism and (self-diagnosed) ADHD, I like my routines. I like knowing what I’m going to do each day, and roughly when I’m going to do it. In fact, getting my workday started involves four distinct steps.

  1. Take my morning medications.
  2. Take the pups out to do their business, then feed them breakfast.
  3. Eat my own breakfast, have my coffee, and call my mom.
  4. Journal.

Even if I don’t follow the routine in this specific order, I usually get it all done before I turn on my laptop to start working. I have this routine because a vast majority of the time, it’s the only thing I can control in my day.

Jordan Rosenfeld advises fiction authors to introduce their protagonist in the world as the protagonist knows it “with all its problems, perks, and characters.” This doesn’t mean going into specific detail of every little action they take as they move through the story’s opening pages, of course. If does mean giving readers just enough information to ground them in your character’s physical, mental, and emotional worlds.

So, what are the three best stages to work through to establish a solid plot introduction? Work out your protagonist’s weakness and need, how those influence their desires and motivations, and the juxtaposition between their motivations and the obstacles and opponents they’re about to face.

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Weakness and Need

Before establishing anything else, consider how you will define your main character’s weakness. In fiction, weakness is what is holding a character back from achieving their full potential. This weakness is so profound, something that’s so inherently missing in who they are as a person, they cannot be and are not a whole person.

On a deeper level, readers should also be able to at least assume that your character’s need is directly related to their weakness. The need is what your protagonist must fulfill to overcome that weakness. External conflicts and struggles open the story’s door, piques a reader’s interest, and lures them through the entrance. It’s the internal conflicts that engender sympathy and have them curling up on the couch to witness your character’s journey.

Desires and Motivations

Steven James makes it clear: For readers to feel a basic emotional connection with your protagonist, they have to figuratively see themselves in that character. That character needs an unmet desire, a tangible goal they’re seeking to achieve. Their desire is that tangible goal, the path your reader will walk in lockstep to see whether the protagonist succeeds or fails.

Directly connected to a character’s desire is their motivation for that desire. Desire is what they want. Motivation is why they want it. These motivations can be as simple as meeting physical needs or protecting loved ones from harm. They can also be as complex as overthrowing a corrupt system for the betterment of society. No matter the motivation, your readers should understand the protagonist’s rationale, even if they don’t necessarily agree.

Obstacles and Antagonists

Getting to the juicy bits of the story takes time. Before they can go searching for what they want, you should make it clear what prompted your protagonist to start in the first place. The inciting incident is that moment. This is what (or who) upends your protagonist’s world and makes it impossible to keep living their normal life. It’s their first obstacle to overcome, and it’s required for them to hurdle over it. That obstacle and act of hurdling is what sets your whole story in motion. Don’t worry about making the right things happen. Make the right things go wrong at an ever-quickening pace.

The key behind a great obstacle is a great opponent. Someone or something is steadily blocking your protagonist from achieving their short- and long-term wants. In fact, the antagonist has the same goal as the protagonist. They just have a different reason for wanting that goal. To create a powerful antagonist, identify the deepest conflict they share with your main character, a number of visible and hidden attacks they can take against the main character, and what each stand to lose or gain by succeeding where the other fails.

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Although my morning routine is nearly engraved in marble, the events that happen between the time I log in for work and when I shut it all down can be anyone’s guess. Sure, I have a specific to-do list of work tasks for every day. Whether they all get checked off depends on their priority: what needs to be done, what can be postponed, and whether the universe has granted me the energy to do what needs doing even when I don’t want to do it.

Your protagonist should have those same struggles to work through, but they have to be pulled into the decision despite any efforts to avoid or ignore it. Fiction requires friction. Without this conflict in place, readers have none of their own motivation to continue your story. Readers will only care about a protagonist to the extent that character cares about overcoming the obstacles to defeat their opponent.

Your character will only care so much in relation to how deep their weaknesses and needs run and how they shape the character’s desires and motivations. A strong plot introduction combines these six elements in a way that the sum is greater than its parts. Trust your reader to make the connections. Lay the groundwork for your protagonist’s inner journey. Give a good enough reason for readers to not only start the external journey with your protagonist, but to stick around for the internal one as well. They’ll appreciate the effort as they reflect on your story one word at a time.

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