I saw a news story the other day about a man who robbed a bank. It was an article in the paper. He was about six foot tall, Caucasian, short blond hair, and wore a denim jacket. He escaped with $7000. There was a car chase with the police. His car collided with another when he ran a red light. He survived but the other driver did not. He’s in jail now.
Okay, I made this up. I’m about to make a point. Technically, what I’ve written aboveis a plot, the main sequence of events in a story. It’s not a story. It’s definitely not a novel. But what if we asked some more questions? Why did the man feel the need to rob the bank? What if his only daughter was dying of cancer and he needed the money to pay for treatment? What if his ex-wife was the captain of police? What if the person killed in the car accident was the doctor treating the man’s daughter? The potential for a story starts to emerge.
Good stories come from asking lots of ‘what if’ questions and creating scenarios. A writer finds the most interesting scenarios and stitches them together. But events don’t just happen – people make them happen, and its people, or characters, that allow a writer to engage the emotions of readers. Events aren’t interesting – people are.
Characters make stories what they are: their motives, their reasons, their fears, their weaknesses, their goals, a whole greater than the sum of the parts.
This point is important. Here’s why: I’ve met aspiring thriller writers who have ideas but are concerned that everything has been done before. An original story seems elusive. I believed this for a while when I was first starting out. Then, one night, I was watching a movie on television and had an epiphany.
Let’s forget about the bank robbery scenario. What if our protagonist instead set about stealing a nuclear weapon to hold a city/country/the world to ransom? Think about all of the films you’ve seen with this basic plot. I was watching one of these films when I had my epiphany. In case you’re wondering, here’s a list of films on my DVD shelf that share this basic plot:
- Thunderball (1965): a bad guy steals some nuclear warheads and holds a large city to ransom; the good guy (James Bond) is the only one who can stop him (or them: SPECTRE).
- True Lies (1994): a bad guy steals some nuclear warheads and holds a large city to ransom; the good guy is the only one who can stop him.
- Broken Arrow (1996): a bad guy steals a nuclear bomb and holds a large city to ransom; the good guy is the only one who can stop him.
- The Peacemaker (1997): a bad guy steals a nuclear bomb and sells it to another guy who plans to use it on a large city; the good guy (a man and a woman) have to stop him.
- The Sum of All Fears (2002): a bad guy purchases a nuclear bomb and smuggles it into a large city with plans to use it; the good guy has to stop him.
There are stacks of other films. The James Bond creators loved nukes, for example. This is just a selection. As you can see, all of these films are fundamentally identical, yet each of them is unique. Let’s revisit these films by talking about the characters a little bit.
- Thunderball (1965): this is formulaic James Bond. The theft of nuclear weapons is just another way of getting him to be another violent sociopath for our entertainment. Here's the trailer, which tells us absolutely nothing about the plot because it doesn't really matter.
- True Lies (1994): the protagonist in this story has been a spy for fifteen years and has kept it a secret from his wife and daughter for the entire time. The nuclear theft and the inevitable threat is the plot, but the story is how his work starts to intrude on his family life. His wife is bored and craves excitement. She goes looking for it and gets into trouble. I won’t spoil it. Here's the trailer. Again, it doesn't really show much about the plot.
- Broken Arrow (1996): This one is about two air force pilots who are best friends. They are on exercise carrying two nuclear warheads in their stealth bomber when one forces a crash in order to have a team retrieve the weapons. This one is about how two friends become enemies and creates an interesting dynamic. The trailer for this one actually mentions nuclear weapons.
- The Peacemaker (1997): This one is interesting. A corrupt Russian general arranges for nuclear missiles he is escorting on a train to be stolen (all except one, which he detonates to cover it up). One of these missiles is sold to a Yugoslavian man who plans to blow up the UN Headquarters in New York to avenge the death of his wife and daughter. An American soldier and a civilian nuclear weapons expert spend the film trying to track all of the warheads and, ultimately, stop the detonation in New York. The soldier is a man and the expert is a woman, so there’s a little bit of romantic tension thrown in as a bonus. Again, here's a trailer, and it does mention bombs too, but only in passing.
- The Sum of All Fears (2002): The film is different to the book, but the basics are the same. In summary, a group of people with plans of seizing some power come upon a nuclear weapon that nobody even realised was missing. They smuggle it into an American city and plan to detonate it in order to force Russia and the United States into a nuclear war. The film follows the intelligence analyst who has to piece it all together to avert nuclear catastrophe. This is a big picture film with a focus on powerful individuals – the men with the keys to the nukes. Here's the trailer.
So, a character steals a nuclear weapon and has to be stopped. This is just a basic idea for a plot but the characters and the events they set in motion are what makes each story unique. In fact, for each of these films, the theft of a nuclear weapon barely gets mentioned in the ads. It's all the other stuff around this basic idea that makes someone want to see the film.
What about my story, you might ask? Well, some time ago, I read an article in the newspaper about an organised crime network that had large energy investments. I started to wonder if a big oil discovery might upset members of this criminal network, particularly when a glut of oil on the market caused the price of a barrel to drop. And criminals, having a different morality, might act differently to preserve their interests than a nation state.
It was just an idea. And it all starts with an idea. A plot is just a sequence of events but it’s the characters that give the events meaning. That’s how an idea becomes a story worth telling.