so I've been working on this story for about two years, and I have a whole world and set of characters built. I have extensive lore and descriptions on the world (it's a fantasy setting), and extensive background and such written for the characters. I even have points in the story where I know where I want things to go in a way. I just don't know where to begin, and when I do where to continue. If anyone has any help that would be awesome!
What you have done so far is to create a history. A history is fine, but it is not a story. A story is a drama and dramas have a specific shape. You can think of a drama as being built around a choice, specifically a choice between competing values. A conventional hero is on a journey of discovery. Who are they? What do the want? What are they willing to do to get what they want?
The basic shape of a drama is to bring the protagonist, kicking a screaming, to that point where they have to make that choice, where they have to decide which value is most important to them, where they have to decide what price they are willing to pay to achieve their end. That choice is the central moment of a drama, though it is not always the height of the action.
Everything in a drama must be proved by action. It is not enough that the protagonist make the decision, that they agree to pay the price, we must also see that they really do pay it. Thus the climax of the action may come after the central choice has been made, its function being to prove that the choice has been made, that the hero's resolution is genuine, that the price has really been paid. (Alternatively, of course, it may prove that the hero has feet of clay, that they are not willing to pay the price.)
Once you find the moral core of your drama, the choice that must be made and the price that must be paid, you are ready to situate your drama in the history you have made. The function of the plot from that point on is to
establish the values that the hero holds dear and between which they must eventually choose
bring the hero to the realization that the choice must be made
allow the hero to twist and turn and try to get out of making the choice
force the hero into a place where they cannot avoid the choice
have them make the choice
prove, through action, that the price has been paid (or not) and that the victory has been earned.
There are ideas about what constitutes an effective plot. The simplest and most straight forward is Elizabeth Bowen's dictum that "Plot is destination". Decide what goals your characters have and what problems they have to solve and set them in motion.
Elizabeth Bowen also said: "Plot is character in action." As your characters strive towards their goals they will express the nature of the characters through their actions.
Geoffrey Landis has the most succinct description of what constitutes a story.
Require the character to make a choice, show that choice by actions, and those actions must have consequences.
You can set your story in motion by making your characters make choices, doing this inaction and being forced to deal with the consequences. The consequences should escalate, getting worse and worse until the final resolution leading to the climax.
This can be done in conjunction with the seven art plot. This has been given different formulations, but the most well known version is due to the American science-fiction writer Algis Budrys.
Algis Budrys’s seven point story structure. It has:
in a situation, with a problem, who tries repeatedly to solve his problem, but repeatedly fails, (usually making the problem worse), then, at the climax of the story, makes a final attempt (which might
either succeed or fail, depending on the kind of story it is),
after which the result is “validated” in a way that makes it clear that what we saw was, in fact, the final result.
There are a considerable number of articles on the internet discussing the seven point story structure. Just Google it and you will be deluged with them.
The problem you have is an overabundant of worldbuilding, its lore and history. The way to escape from this trap is create a story and only use enough of the elements of your world to facilitate the story and the actions of your characters.
+1 Mark. In keeping with his description, I consider most stories to be a description of a change or transformation of a main character, and potentially other characters in the show.
This is true of coming of age stories; the transformation from a child to a sexual adult, including the dawn of romantic love (at least).
There are other transformation stories: Say a young adult, 18, loses his parents in a car accident. He is the oldest of four children, three of them minors. He loves them. What does he do next? Who is he, by the end of the book?
Star wars is a transformation story, of Luke Skywalker, and to a lesser extent Hans Solo and Princess Leia. Later installments detail the transformation of Darth Vader, from good to evil.
Any story where lessons are learned is a transformation story. I did say most: In many action stories the hero doesn't change, they solve a puzzle, kill some bad guys, gain some reward and are done. 007, Taken, Mission Impossible, Indiana Jones are examples. On the other hand, I cannot recall a romantic comedy that is NOT a transformation story, it almost certainly is by definition.
Your fantasy world is all fine and good, except perhaps for your characters. They sound like you have them set, and (to me and the kinds of stories I write) you need characters that are NOT so set, that can become somebody different, that can be reshaped by stressors that come and kick them in the face.
A plot arises when a relatively comfortable character (even if it is a kid) is coerced (by people, accident, maturation, or bad luck or the universe) into an uncomfortable situation the cannot undo; so they can no longer remain who they are.
A soldier in battle freezes, and watches his friend get killed, which he could have prevented just by pulling a trigger. He cannot undo the past, he cannot return to what he was. He feels a coward, and literally a traitor. Can he come to terms with these feelings before they drive him to suicide? How, exactly?
Or take the movie Juno: A 15 year old virgin is in love, she seduces her equally virgin love interest, and she gets pregnant. Now what?
You need a main character in your world to undergo a transformation. You need an event in your world that triggers the need for such a transformation. Mark provides the details of how plots generally unfold, what you need is a REASON behind a story, a problem to solve, a situation to resolve, by some character. It cannot be something they can just walk away from, they have to do something, even if they are not sure what to do: Figuring out what to do is part of the story, too. Usually your story starts a little before our character encounters the problem, so we get some sense of who they are and what world they inhabit. Then the problem occurs or is revealed, and our character is coerced and must deal with it. Often becoming a different person in the process.
Academy award winner Aaron Sorkin says: "You cannot say you have an idea (for a story) until you use the words BUT or THEN". That is to say: it's only when you COMPLICATE the characters and the situations that you have a story.
A story is about objectives, conflict and choices.
A character wants ONE thing - saving the princess, finding the gold, getting the crown, whatever. Then something blocks his way, and makes the journey or the situation complicated. (Note that it works also in a passive way: Bilbo wants to stay home and his world to stay always the same, but something happens that forces him to leave).
Think about what your characters want, and throw some obstacles on their path. Also, think about their weaknesses, and create a situation where those are tested and need to be overcome.
I'll provide a few (non exhaustive) thoughts on 'how-to' details. This will vary from writer to writer.
(1) I am in a writing group where people have 'a great idea' and jump in and start writing and ... '2/3 of the way through they lose interest.' The first chapter is great because they worked on it and it was fun,. same with second, third, etc chapters. So they have a nice start to a story and then it sits unfinished for a long time somewhere.
That's a cautionary tale. If you think that will happen to you, take precautions up front. This may mean committing to finishing it even when it is no longer fun, or writing the ending first, or some other approach.
(2) Some people outline the entire story. This is a different approach. They don't write anything, or have fun necessarily in the same way, until the outline is in place.
(3) Some people (I am currently in this group) write the whole dang thing as a complete story (more than an outline, an actual story with all the elements) and just force themselves to get through it whether it is coming out nicely or not. This is probably the mode of writing used by many in NaNoWriMo. I enjoyed plowing roughshod through my story and it showed at the end because it was horrible. The timeline was screwed up, the characters were ill-defined, the motivations weren't clear, there was no deeper meaning to anything, the villain was cringe-worthy. But the approach works in the sense that the idea/story was now on paper, and now you can go back through and modify this or that.
This has struck me as being similar to any other artistic endeavor - painting, sculpting, woodworking (get the damn joints right), even theater.
So - How do you do it? That's up to you, but don't let the empty screen stop you from getting on with it.
I always maintain that the most important character in any story is the antagonist. The protaganist will stop the antagonist, of course, win the day, save the world... but the Antagonist is the story. Naturally, your story should be right in the first intersection of the Antagonist and Protagonist in the story, even if the intersection is brief. For example, in Star Wars, we start our story with the hero (Luke) meeting survivors of the antagonist, fairly early and the story builds from there. It's not the first thing to happen, but the story doesn't really do anything until it gets to that stage. From there, it's the story of our hero being slowly introduced to the greater world with the villain.
Similarly, Avengers starts with Loki, intersecting the heroes as represented by Nick Fury. Prior to that, all our heroes are wandering around doing their own thing.
So the best starting point is close to the first action that brings the hero into the villain's world. Defeating the villain is the end goal of any story so this is the character that needs to be the most thought out. The climax will be right as the villain's goals are about to be achieved. So figuring out what you villain wants and how he/she will achieve that goal is crucial to starting your story.