Starting a fire

John August reminds you that as a writer it’s your job to burn the house down.

Splash metaphorical or real gasoline all over the place, strike a match and let it fly.

You need to burn down houses. You need to push characters out of their safe places into the big, unsafe and scary world. And you need to make sure they can never get back. No matter how much they want to.

Yes, their stated quest might be to get home but you need to make sure that wherever they end up in a new and different place. A new and different (and better) home.

No matter the story, no matter the genre, you need to find ways to strip characters of their insulating shells of normalcy, their self-imposed habitual limits. You need to take everything away.

A fire (or other breathtaking catastrophe) often occurs as an inciting incident that sets the wheels of the plot in motion. In “The House Bunny” Shelley is kicked out of the Playboy mansion by page ten. In “Gladiator” Maximus’ family is killed.

Fire often signals the end of the first act. In “Star Wars” Luke rushes home to find his aunt and uncle dead, smoke spilling from the smouldering homestead. In “9 to 5” the secretaries inadvertently kidnap their boss. Either way there’s no going back to the way things were.

Fire can work just as well later in the story, effectively burning bridges characters have just crossed. Second act and third act fire not only keep the momentum going but also up the scale and stakes.

Question is what can you burn in your story?

What can you set on fire?

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