Friday, November 5, 2010

[Writing Prompt] Equations with Lisa (L.D.) Harkrader

Writing Prompt: Desire + Fear = Story
by Lisa Harkrader
When I first began writing, I kept hearing the old adage, “Plot springs from character.” I understood it on an intellectual level (I think), but I didn’t begin to understand it in my gut until I began asking my characters two things:

1.      What do you want most in the world?
2.      What are you most afraid of?

The answers to those two questions can give you a fine plot, driving the story from the inciting incident to the inevitable final crisis. I’ll use a few of my favorite movies as examples (don’t read this if you haven’t yet seen the movies, especially How to Train Your Dragon, which just came out on DVD; they’re too good for me to spoil for you here):

1.      In Toy Story, Woody wants to keep Andy and all his toys safe and happy. He’s afraid he’ll be replaced as Andy’s favorite. In the end, by saving Buzz and risking the thing he fears most—being replaced—he’s able to restore the safe, happy order of the toys’ lives and claim his own more secure place in it.

2.      In How to Train Your Dragon, Hiccup wants to be a fearless, dragon-slaying Viking so that he can fit in on his island and make his father, the fearless Viking leader, proud. He’s afraid of his father’s disappointment and wrath. In the end, by saving his dragon and, therefore, risking losing his father’s love forever, he becomes a hero on his island, a Viking like no other.

3.      In The Full Monty, each of the six main characters wants something and is afraid of something. The main character, Gaz, a divorced, unemployed steel worker, wants to be the kind of father his son, Nathan, can be proud of. He’s afraid he’ll lose joint custody of Nathan. In the end, by taking the risk of making his ex-wife angry enough to keep Nathan from him for good, he makes Nathan prouder of him than he’s ever been—and shows his wife he’s the kind of man who deserves custody of his son.

This isn’t the only way to construct a story, but I’ve found that when a character must overcome the thing she most fears to get the thing she most wants, I wind up with a plot that springs from character.

About Lisa Harkrader

L.D. Harkrader loved books from the minute she first held one in her hand. She loved bedtime stories and convinced her amazingly accomodating parents to read the same books to her over and over until she had memorized the stories and could recite them out loud even before she knew how to read.

Once she did learn to read, you couldn’t pry books from her hot little hands. In school, her favorite days were library day and the day her teacher passed out the Scholastic Book Club flyers.

In the third grade, she realized that somebody had to write all those books she loved to read, and decided that some day, one of those somebodies would be her. Now, nearly forty years later, she’s making that third-grade dream come true.

Her recent books include Airball: My Life in Briefs, about middle-grade boys who want to win so badly they end up playing basketball in their underwear, and Nocturne, about a foundling who must use her powerful magic to save her adopted uncle and her town from unspeakable evil. Her middle-grade novel, The Adventures of Beanboy, about a boy who loves comic books, will be released in 2011.

Find out more about Lisa at her website:

You can click on these links to check out her books!


  1. Found your blog on the "blueboards"- funny- those two question are probably what most of us ask ourselves and struggle with- good way to shape real characters- thanks!

  2. This is such clear and insightful advice. I'm filing it away in my mental notes for next time I'm stuck in a piece of writing and need some direction. So glad I visited today! Thanks :)

  3. @Lisa -- You are so very welcome! I look forward to having you back again.
    @Warren, Julia and Anna -- I am so glad that you enjoyed Lisa's advice as much as I did. Thanks for visiting, and please visit again and/or become a follower so that you don't miss the many fabulous authors I have in store!

  4. great insight! Love your examples.

    Christy (via verla kay)

  5. Thanks, Christy! Welcome to the Playground!

  6. Fantastic post--thanks! I'm struggling with the end of my WIP, and I know the character needs to face losing what she wants most in order to gain it in the end.