We start with a bit of jelly on a plastic lid. Cathy and I were having breakfast on a restaurant’s patio this morning and bees were swarming around each table, trying to get at everyone’s food. “All they want is a little something sweet,” Cathy said. Then she took the lid off the little plastic container of strawberry jelly, put a dab of jelly on it, and set it at the far edge of our table. It took a few seconds for the bees to find it, but once they did, they were in heaven, and we were left to enjoy our breakfasts without their intrusion.
Which brings me, believe it or not, to the writing of fiction. Sometimes we forget that our main characters all want something a little sweet. They want happiness, they want love, they want safety, they want any number of things. If we can make their desires tangible, we can help our plots find their shapes. What concrete manifestations can we find for our characters desires? Does your main character, for example, want to win a school spelling bee to gain his father’s approval? Is the trophy the representation of the love your main character seeks? Or does a woman want a Mustang because her husband tells her she’s too old to drive a sporty car like that? Remember, our characters all want a little something sweet. Clearly identifying that something will set a plot in motion.
It can’t be easy to get that something. It it’s easy to get the spelling bee trophy or the Mustang, we won’t have a story. We’ll just give the characters what they want, and we’ll call it a day. Stories and their characters become interesting when they have to struggle to try to get what they want. Those bees on the patio? The table where Cathy and I were sitting had a metal mesh surface. At first, a bee was stymied. He was crawling on the underside of the table, sensing the jelly somewhere above him, but not quite sure how to get at it. He had to figure out how to find his way through the small holes of the mesh to the top where the sweet jelly waited for him. At first, he couldn’t quite do it, and he gave up and took a few dives at my toast. I swatted him away. Now not only did he have to figure out the geometric design of the tabletop, he also had to deal with the madman waving his arms in an attempt to drive him away. You get the point; our main characters should have to strive to overcome a series of obstacles.
That bee never gave up. Eventually he found his way to that jelly, and he ate and ate and ate. He ate so much, in fact, that he ended up stunned and nearly motionless on the table. The lesson for the fiction writer? Sometimes, after a period of struggle, our main characters can get exactly what they want, but at a cost. We’re well-served if we think about what they have to give up for what they can gain. The end of a good story often lands in a place between achievement and disappointment. The main character gets what she wants but loses something in the process, or the main character doesn’t get what he wants but gets something else he may not have even known he wanted or needed. Stories that live in these gray areas become memorable.
The story of the bees was only possible because Cathy put a little something sweet within their reach. If we do the same, we improve our chances of creating a story with an interesting plot and also one that shows us something significant about the characters involved.