Every story needs a physical problem for the hero to resolve. Physical problems are often external, such as watching the hero fight the villain in a war or sports story. However, the physical problem can be less confrontational such as a love story where the hero must fight to win the person they love.
The key to physical problems is that they must pose an initial question that never gets answered until the very end. Now the entire story revolves around struggling to get closer to answering this initial question.
In “Alien,” the initial question posed in the Beginning scene is “Why did the starship wake the crew members up early?” From this point on, the story keeps giving us clues until finally revealing the answer. Once we know the answer by the end of Act IIb, Act III simply shows us whether the hero will resolve the initial emotional problem and how they’ll do it.
This is how the physical problem appears in “Alien”:
- There’s a mysterious signal coming from a planet.
- The mysterious signal is coming from an alien spacecraft.
- There are signs of life in the alien spacecraft.
- One of these life forms latches on to the face of a crew member.
- An alien bursts out of the crew member’s body.
- The alien starts killing the crew.
- The hero learns that the corporation running the starship wants to bring the alien back alive even if it means the entire crew perishes. Now we finally know the answer to “Why did the starship wake the crew members up early?” It was because the starship’s corporation wanted to bring the alien back at all costs.
The Ending answers the initial question posed in the Beginning. That means the quickest way to outline a story is to define an intriguing, initial question in the Beginning and then answer it in the End. By knowing how your story starts and how it ends, you can easily see whether this initial question in the Beginning will create a strong enough story that gets answered in the End.
Think of a weak initial question such as, “Will a man put on his shoes today?” This question fails to generate much interest because there’s little mystery. The answer is entirely trivial and easily answered, which means there’s not much of a story for anyone to care about.
If an initial question is trivial and too easily resolved, it likely won’t be interesting enough to create an entire story to answer it. However, an initial question should also define an interesting world as well.
In “Alien,” the initial question is “Why did the starship wake the crew members up early?” This makes us wonder what is this starship, where did it come from, and where is it going? Who are the people on the starship? Who controls the starship? The initial question alone easily generates lots of additional questions.
The initial question itself must generate more questions. The more questions the initial question can generate, the more intriguing the story.
In “Buried,” the initial question is how will a man, buried alive with nothing more than a lighter and a cell phone, escape? This initial question makes us wonder who is this man, who are the people who buried him alive, why did they bury him alive, and what do they hope to gain from giving him just a cell phone and a lighter?
The more questions the initial question can generate, the better the initial question can define an entire story that gradually answers these other questions until finally resolving the initial question.
To craft a compelling initial question in the Beginning, you must know the answer ahead of time in the End. If you only know the initial question but not the answer, you’ll risk writing a story that fails to stay focused on this initial question because it lacks direction.
Thus the Beginning and End are linked together. If the End doesn’t answer the initial question posed in the Beginning, the story will feel disappointing. Most writers start with an initial question and then work towards answering it, but a simpler approach is to start with the answer in the End and then work backwards to create a mysterious, open-ended initial question in the Beginning.
The answer should focus on the outcome for the hero in the end. Then with each question, work backwards by gradually minimizing the hero’s risk until you get to a seemingly peaceful beginning.
In “Alien,” it might work like this:
- END: A sole survivor manages to blast off in an escape shuttle and finally kill the alien.
- Minimize the risk: The alien kills all the crew except for one person.
- Minimize the risk: The alien kills just some of the crew.
- Minimize the risk: The alien kills just one crew member.
- Minimize the risk: The alien attacks but does not kill one crew member.
- Minimize the risk: The crew discovers the alien inside a strange alien spacecraft.
- Minimize the risk: The crew discovers a signal coming from the alien spacecraft.
- Minimize the risk: The crew discovers a signal coming from an unknown planet.
- BEGINNING: The crew is minding their own business in space.
Every story starts with a seemingly peaceful beginning and gradually increases in intensity. By working backwards from the ending, you can easily outline the plot of your story. That means you must know the ending of your story even if the exact details may not be clear.
Most writers have a rough idea of their story beginning, so working backwards can better define the story plot. By knowing the ending and working backwards to minimize the hero’s risk, the story gradually reduces intensity until it arrives at the beginning.
Minimizing the risks backwards works because when looking at the story in chronological order, the story goes from the hero taking minor risks in the beginning to increasingly dangerous risks near the end.
In “Legally Blonde,” working backwards from the end to the beginning looks like this:
- END: The hero wins her first court case and proves she doesn’t need a man to be happy.
- Minimize the risk: The hero is helping a court case as part of her law school training, but isn’t in charge of the court case.
- Minimize the risk: The hero is just in law school but doing well enough to impress her law professors.
- Minimize the risk: The hero pretends to be a lawyer to help her friend get back her dog from her ex-boyfriend.
- Minimize the risk: The hero is starting to do well in her law classes.
- Minimize the risk: The hero has just gotten admitted into law school.
- Minimize the risk: The hero decides to apply to law school to win back her ex-boyfriend.
- BEGINNING: The hero thinks she must be dependent on a man by acting like a sex object.
Exercise: Pick a favorite movie and start at the ending to identify the hero’s state. Then work backwards to minimize the risk to the hero each step of the way until you get to the beginning. Outline the multiple steps needed to take the hero from the end to the beginning, minimizing the risks with each step.
Come up with your own idea for a story and define the ending. Then work backwards to keep minimizing the risks to the hero until you reach a safe beginning. This should give you a rough outline for how your story’s hero can gradually progress towards resolving a physical problem.