Thursday, January 16, 2020

The Core of Every Novel: The Big Want & The Big Fear

By Spencer Ellsworth, @spencimus

Part of The How They Do It Series

JH: As complicated as novels are, they really do come down to some very simple things. Spencer Ellsworth shares two of them.

Spencer Ellsworth has been writing since he learned how. He is the author of The Great Faerie Strike, a tale of the Otherworld’s first labor union, from Broken Eye Books. He is also the author of the space opera Starfire Trilogy from Tor, and many other short works. He lives in Bellingham, WA, with his wife and three children, works at a small tribal college, and would really like a war mammoth, please.

Take it away Spencer…

A lot of writing advice starts with “you only need one thing to tell a story” or “there’s only a certain number of stories” or, more often than not, “I have the secret of writing and you can know it for a mere $499.95!”

I’m skeptical of this kind of one-size-fits-all writing advice. (Although you can send me $499.95 if you feel inclined. I promise, I won’t be offended. Go ahead!)

However, I always ask two questions of every story.

I tell friends, family and students that these questions are the best way to start writing.

I create character files that start with these questions.

So if I were the type to give that kind of advice, I’d tell you to always start with these questions:
1. What does a character want most in all the world?
2. What are they most afraid of in all the world?
Once you know the Big Want, the character must face the Big Fear. Depending on what kind of story you’re reading, they will get the Big Want and end happily, tragically fail and be defeated by the Big Fear, or get the Big Want and end in bittersweet contemplation, realizing that maybe it wasn’t really worth it.

You may come up with some different, even more interesting combination for the ending.

(Here's more on Goals-Motivations-Conflicts: The Engine That Keeps a Story Running)

So how to get this into the story? Just have the character say the Big Want. 

“I want to learn the ways of the Force and become a Jedi like my father.” This sets up Luke’s need to confront Vader, who killed his father and later kills his mentor. In Return of the Jedi, Yoda spells out the Big Fear to Big Want quest: “You must confront Vader. Only then a Jedi will you be.”

At the end of the first chapter of Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed, Doro drops a stunning line on Anyanwu. An immortal, Anyanwu has seen husbands and children grow old and die while she prospered. “If you come with me,” Doro says, “I think I can show you children you won’t have to bury.”

But Doro has proven himself a monster—a murderer, master manipulator and slaver—and Anyanwu is the only one with power strong enough to challenge him.

My two favorite books from 2018 put the questions front and center. (Too early to pick a favorite from 2019). In Fonda Lee’s Jade City Kaul Shae must become involved in her family’s magical criminal empire because otherwise her family will die, conquered by their rivals.

But in the process, she must confront this fact: her grandfather and her brothers are monsters, and to win the gang war, she must become like them. You may recognize this Big Want and Big Fear from a little story called The Godfather; Lee puts a whole new spin on it with an illegal trade in magical substances.

(Here's more on Two Questions to Ask for Stronger Character Goals and Motivations)

Mary Robinette Kowal’s Elma York in The Calculating Stars puts her head down and barrels through a torrent of sexism in her quest to become the first female astronaut. She is the face of a space program in our alternate past, an unlikely hero and celebrity, but her own anxiety is much harder to conquer.

When your draft has grown messy, a big Pizza The Hutt-style slop lumbering along with goopy subplots, when looking at the manuscript gives you the urge to do the dishes, ask these two questions and everything will come sharply into view.

Is your character doing what the plot demands, not the Big Want?

Are they fighting disposable under-bosses, instead of threats that carry the Big Fear?

Plot serves character. It depends on character’s choices and character’s goals. If your plot isn’t moving in these direction, let the two questions grab that plot and shake the slop off.

(Here's more on Brainstorming Your Character's Emotional Wound)

Wait, you say!

Spencer, I already had my Big Fear confrontation! My character was deathly afraid of starting their quest, and they finally started it… and now I’m stuck in a giant soggy middle!

Ah, but the Big Fear is never truly defeated until the last few pages. Samwise Gamgee must face the notion of going on without Frodo after his master is stung by Shelob, He may face the Big Fear at Cirith Ungol, but Frodo will hover at the edge of death until Mount Doom. And worst of all, he must let Frodo go on alone at the Grey Havens.

In the aforementioned Calculating Stars and its sequel The Faded Sky, Elma conquers anxiety with the help of medication… and then has to deal with the fallout when a regressive 1950s world finds out that this hypercompetent star takes anxiety medication. Nothing will make the anxiety worse than everyone judging you for the anxiety. The Big Fear is pretty literal in this book!

Question 2a, then: how is the Big Fear reborn and transformed and “leveled up” every time the character thinks they’ve beaten it?

And how does obtaining the Big Want finally transform the character’s relationship to the Big Fear?

Samwise has found untold strength in his quest, courage and confidence, enough that he can live on a happily married hobbit even without Frodo—though it tears his heart out to part at the Grey Havens. Luke is a Jedi at last, ready to restore the ancient order knowing that his father’s love conquered the darkness. Anyanwu forces Doro to admit defeat and transform himself.

Kaul Shae and Elma… are from 2018, so I’m not spoiling anything! Go read Jade City and The Calculating Stars to find out!

I know no better trick to make a manuscript come alive than to ask these questions. (Though you can still try sending me $499.95.)

And maybe you’ll make it through the writer’s own version of the Big Want and Big Fear: the desire for a published book and the fear of really digging in to revise the draft.

A Revolution in Faerie

Ridley Enterprises has brought industry to the Otherworld, churning out magical goods for profit. But when they fire Charles the gnome, well, they’ve gone too far. Although it goes against a gnome's respectable nature, he takes to the City Beyond streets, fighting for workers’ rights.

The Otherworld's first investigative reporter, Jane, is looking for a story. She finds it in a high society murder among werewolf nobility, a murder tied to Charles's firing.

Jane and Charles must unite the fey workers, deal with their forbidden feelings for one another, and bring the Ridleys to justice. They win, and a Faerie revolution will bring justice. They lose, and a dark, ancient power will consume both worlds.

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound | Kobo


  1. Thank you for this, Spencer! I've given myself a lot of anxiety trying to answer the typical questions about tension, but yours cleared it right up!

    1. Woot! I'm delighted this was helpful. Writing it made me realize that I needed to ask the same questions of my own books!