What Drives Your Protagonist?

ProtagonistCONTINUING my exploration of Robert Mckee’s, Story, I highlight an important technique: How to make your protagonist more engrossing. This entails that I talk about the tension between want and need.

The Tension driving your Protagonist

The protagonist is a willful character. His pursuit of his desire is relentless. It is also the outward manifestation of an unconscious inner conflict. It stems from what he believes he wants in life.

In The Land Below Paulie’s desire is to reach the surface in search of wonder. In The Nostalgia of Time Travel it is Benjamin’s obsession with solving an intractable mathematical equation. In Scarab it is Jack’s desire to undo Emma’s death. Often, clear and conscious desires are enough to drive the story forward.

But the greatest stories do not only pit the protagonist against external obstacles to desire. They also pit him against himself.

They do this by infusing him with an unconscious desire that is at odds with his declared want. The result is an inner conflict which is resolved only when he realises that his want is inferior to his need.

Indeed, it is this very recognition that is the final proof that the protagonist has grown. It indicates that he has learnt from his mistakes. It heralds his final readiness to face and defeat the antagonist at the level of external action.

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, Benjamin is able to move on from a life of regret and stasis only when he realises that his salvation lies not through mathematical solutions to impossible problems but in self-forgiveness through art. In Scarab, Jack is able to save the woman he loves through sacrifice – by walking away from the relationship he so desperately desires.

In these, and other stories, it is the tension lurking beneath what the protagonist wants and what he needs that fascinates readers.

Summary

The tension between what a protagonist wants and needs is the engine of conflict in the protagonist.

Conflict, Complication and Complexity in Stories

Complexity out of complication and conflictIN HIS book, Story, Robert McKee reminds us that conflict arises the moment the protagonist steps out of the Inciting Incident and heads towards the turning point at the end of act one.

Act two, the longest act of any story, is held together by conflict, complication and complexity. Every obstacle the protagonist encounters in trying to attain the goal, is complicated by these three aspects.

But what is the difference between complication and complexity? Aren’t they one and the same thing?

Complexity from Conflict and Complication

Complexity, according to McKee, results from the deepening interaction between three layers of conflict:

Inner
Personal
Extra-personal

In Kramer Vs. Kramer, for example, Kramer, whose wife has left him and his son, is torn by inner doubt. He loves his son, but is he in over his head? Can he bring up the child on his own?

There is also personal conflict. The boy is acting-up. He is terrified that he’ll starve without his mother to feed him. Kramer has a hard time pacifying the hysterical child.

Finally, he experiences extra-personal conflict. The kitchen is a dangerous, alien place for the inexperienced Kramer. He does his best to feign confidence. Things, however, degenerate rapidly as he tries to fry eggs for his son.

As the ill-equipped father fights the forces that threaten to defeat him, comedy turns into pathos. The result is one of the most memorable scenes in the film.

In my recent novella, The Nostalgia of Time Travel, a middle-aged theoretical physicist, too, has to battle complex internal and external conflicts in order to survive. Years of deep-seated guilt, an almost intractable mathematical problem, and an approaching category-five cyclone threaten his life. Together these conflicts create complexity that makes for engrossing reading.

Summary

Complication rises to the level of complexity when a character experiences inner, personal, and extra-personal conflict.

How to Make Your Story Universal

universal storiesEVERY great story is both particular and universal. Being rooted in a local context paradoxically allows it to reach beyond its social and cultural boundaries. In his book, Story, Robert Mckee refers to the process by which a story becomes universal as symbolic ascension.

Like the images in our dreams, symbols permeate our unconscious mind. They deepen our experience of a story in ways that are not at once apparent.

Done in a crude way, we immediately recognise these images as mechanical devices, destroying their effect. Slipped in gradually, skillfully and surreptitiously, however, they move us profoundly.

Making Stories Universal through Symbolism

Symbolic ascension works in this way: At first the settings, incidents and specific actions of characters in a story represent only themselves – they are denotative or literal in meaning. But as the story progresses they acquire greater significance. They acquire connotative or figurative meaning. By the end of the story these very same settings, incidents and actions come to stand for universal ideas.

In The Deer Hunter, the protagonist, Michael (Robert De Niro) progresses from a beer-drinking factory worker to a worrier – the hunter of the film’s title. A man who kills.

But the film shows that if you keep killing you eventually will turn the gun on yourself – as does Nick (Christopher Walken).

The death of Nick precipitates a crisis in Michael. Armed, and in camouflage, he ascends to a mountain top where he spots a magnificent elk emerging from the surrounding mist. The setting resonates with significance harking back to Moses receiving the transformative knowledge of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai.

The action (the ascension), and the setting (the mountain), are symbolically significant. But they are also literal events. It is this effortless duality that gives the story its enduring power.

In my own novel, The Land Below, life in a converted underground mine (the sanctuary of the only humans to have survived a cataclysm), becomes increasingly claustrophobic for its young protagonist, Paulie.

He dreams of the open resplendent spaces filled with grass and waterfalls that he has only seen in books. His decision to climb to the surface, against the warnings of his elders, is a symbolic rejection of fear and ignorance. It represents his desire for knowledge. His actual physical journey to reach the surface has therefore acquired symbolic meaning.

Summary

Symbolic ascension is the process by which seemingly ordinary and specific settings, actions and events acquire universal meaning.

The Gap in Stories

Stories and the Gap

Stories and the gap

IN his influential book, Story, Robert McKee explains a mechanism that is central to understanding the protagonist’s action in stories. He calls this mechanism the gap.

The gap refers to the distance between the protagonist’s subjective evaluation of the achievability of the goal and its objective evaluation by the external world.

From the protagonist’s point of view the paths to the goal seem initially doable and efficient. But as he initiates action the reaction of the world creates a resistance which is proportional to the effort expended.

Extending the Gap in Stories

The more the effort the more resistance he encounters. The result is that his initial evaluation of the goal, too, begins to change. Inner and personal conflicts combine with external conflicts to open a gap between his action and its effectiveness.

This constant expansion of the gap changes the protagonist. He begins to doubt his ability to achieve success. He starts questioning his values and resources. He is forced to take more desperate action, take more risks, in order to try and reverse each failure.

Without a gap between expectation and result in stories, without increasing risk, there would be no tension and conflict. There would be no drama.

The gap between intention and result, therefore, is the space in which interesting and engrossing conflicts play themselves out. Additionally, the gap is not only the generator of inner and outer conflict, it is the motivator of change in the protagonist.

Summary

The gap in stories is the space that separates action and reaction, intention and result, emanating from the protagonist’s pursuit of the goal.

How to Write Great Dialogue

Great DialogueSTORY consultant Linda Seger reminds us that great dialogue is an indispensable part of any enduring story.

Great dialogue has rhythm, context and veracity. It conveys character through subtext and promotes plot through subtlety, ingenuity and compression.

Making Dialogue Memorable

Sometimes a line of dialogue rises to the status of theme and serves to sum up the premise of the story. At its best, it becomes a meme, an item in our menu of commonly used expressions.

In my classes on storytelling, I urge my students to come up with several supercharged lines in their story that not only capture some important aspect of a character, but that also sum up or, at least, highlight important features of the tale.

Such snippets of dialogue increase their power through repetition, not only within the story itself, (the line is repeated by the same or other characters), but also extradigetically, through the viewers and readers who quote it in their everyday lives.

Who can forget these immortal lines?

1. “Go ahead, make my day.”
2. “I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas any more.”
3. “Life is like a box of chocolates.”
4. “I’ll be back.”
5. “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”
6. “I’m not bad. I’m just drawn that way.”
7. “I’m going to make you an offer you can’t refuse.”

Great dialogue echoes, sings, resonates, surprises and excites. Like great music, it keeps replaying itself over and over in our minds.

How many of the lines above can you place? Check below for the answers.

Summary

Great dialogue performs many functions in a story. At its best, it becomes a meme that spreads throughout society, immortalising its source.

1. Dirty Harry
2. The Wizard of Oz
3. Forrest Gump
4. Terminator
5. Apocalypse Now
6. Who Killed Roger Rabbit
7. The Godfather

If you’d like to learn more about my books and background please visit my Amazon author’s page by clicking on this linked text.

Dazzling With Language in Stories

Dazzling language in storiesThere are many things that go into crafting great stories.

Some aspects are hidden from initial view. They are glimpsed only as the story progresses. They exist in the tension between character, theme, setting. They relate to pace, tone, mood, insight.

Such tensions play off against one other eventually kindling a fire that dazzles. Others, such as arresting physical and psychological descriptions through simile and metaphor, are immediately apparent.

No two stories are the same. The narrative relationships within each are too rich and varied for that.

A gifted writer knows when to dazzle us with her exotic yet precise word choice and when to use a subdued vocabulary in order to let something else shine through. A gifted writer is like a gifted conductor, moulding, pacing, coloring every note to greater purpose, now drawing our attention to one voice, now to another.

Dazzling Stories

Today I want to point to what is perhaps the easiest skill to spot – the virtuoso use of language that grants us crucial insights about life (and death).

Examples in stories are as numerous as they are varied, so my choice is a personal one. I’m referring to the many arresting lines from Paul Harding’s first novel, Tinkers, which won the Pulitzer for literature in 2010. The book has not only had a lasting effect on me, but has inspired me to try my hand at a more literary style, resulting in my recently released novella, The Nostalgia of Time Travel.

There is something magical about Harding’s use of language that transcends space and time and makes it truly universal. He starts his book with the lines:

“FORGE WASHINGTON CROSBY BEGAN TO hallucinate eight days before he died. From the rented hospital bed, placed in the middle of his own living room, he saw insects running in and out of imaginary cracks in the ceiling plaster.”

A little later, Harding gives us this surreal description of Forge’s world tearing open as he prepares for death:

“The roof collapsed, sending down a fresh avalanche of wood and nails, tarpaper and shingles and insulation. There was the sky, filled with flat-topped clouds, cruising like a fleet of anvils across the blue. George had the watery, raw feeling of being outdoors when you are sick. The clouds halted, paused for an instant, and plummeted onto his head.
The very blue of the sky followed, draining from the heights into that cluttered concrete socket. Next fell the stars, tinkling about him like the ornaments of heaven shaken loose. Finally, the black vastation itself came untacked and draped over the entire heap, covering George’s confused obliteration.”

This is exceptional, packed writing. How can one not want to read more?

Although I do not presume to claim a place amongst such illustrious company, passages such as the ones quoted above inspired me to come up with my own insights about growing older and our need to reconcile our life with our past mistakes. Here’s my protagonist, The Nostalgia of Time Travel‘s, Benjamin Vlahos, pleading for a second chance to get life right:

“Sometimes, I wonder what it must be like to be a subatomic particle existing for the briefest of moments; all the joy and pain of birth and death compressed between the two staccato ticks of that relentless hand.

At other times I imagine a scaled-down version of myself, living on the surface of the watch, fighting against the perpetual ticking of that fearsome engine. I imagine gripping the watch’s hands in my bleeding fists, my arms extended, my body and head thrust forward, my legs bent and wide apart, until I stop the hands from ticking and force them back, rotating them anti-clockwise, back to that moment on the Sydney pier when I stopped to buy my last pack of cigarettes, while Miranda stood on the pavement smiling brightly back at me.”

Ultimately, Benjamin, despite his being a theoretical physicist, opts for art, not science, as a way of understanding life’s vicissitudes:

“Isn’t everything worth knowing squeezed inside the kernel of a story? All that’s ever been written, sang and spoken, pressed into a single pearl? The story is our raft when old age casts us out to sea; the logs are the memories, the ropes are the love and kindness we have shared. Can my equations ever be that?”

Summary

Use powerful but appropriate metaphors In your stories to immediately capture your reader’s attention.

The Who, What, How, and Why of Characters

Complex CharactersAS WRITERS we set out to fashion memorable characters – driven characters who ache, desire and dream. We seek to create characters who are passionate about something and will do anything to achieve it. Characters who are assembled from multiple layers.

But how do we begin to access these layers? In her book, Advanced Screenwriting, Dr. Linda Seger suggests we start by asking the following questions: Who is the character? What does the character want? Why does the character want it? How does the character get it?

Questioning Your Characters

Who: What is the personality of the character? Is she shy, reclusive? Happy-go-lucky or introverted? Reliable and honest?

What: What does she want and how far will she go to get it? This is the external aspect of character – one tied to the external story goal.

How: How does she get what she wants? Is she a ruthless go-getter who stops at nothing – persuading, threatening, manipulating, or does she achieve her goals through kindness, by example, through wisdom and intelligence?

Why: Why is a character driven? What is the psychology behind his need? In my novella, The Nostalgia of Time Travel, the protagonist is obsessed with undoing an event in the past that claimed the life of his wife for which he blames himself. His psychological scar is so deep that all his actions are channeled through it. The search for transcendence – a major theme in the story, feeds off this obsession.

Characters are also aided or impeded by their values – justice, love, compassion, and the belief that reconciliation is the only way to meet death without regret. A sympathetic character’s values will always be positive.

But even an antagonist, generally loaded with anti-social behaviour views herself as having values – but that view is subjective. The typical protagonist, by contrast, espouses a more acceptable value system. Interestingly, we get the most bang for our character’s buck when we create a tension between the obsession of a character and his value system. The resulting inner conflict makes for absorbing stories.

Summary

Ask the who, what, how, and why of characters to help you craft deep and convincing people for your screenplays or novels.

How to Avoid a Common Weakness in Writing

Writing padIT WAS while teaching classes on Story that I confirmed a common weakness in novice writing – writing that is on-the-nose.

This means that the movement of a scene occurs on the surface, at the level of plot, and not sub-textually where the reader is most involved.

Think of this as writing external action that lacks inner conflict. To avoid this pitfall, and go a step further, present inner conflict as something that the reader is aware of, but not the character(s). Readers will feel compassion, suspense, and interest in the scene because they will be privy to something that a character may only become aware of later, if at all.

Stronger Writing

My advice to new writers is to have them create scenes where the outer movement runs at an angle to the inner motivation – where a character says one thing but means, or intends, quite another. This creates a subtext of conflict in the scene, substantially deepening our enjoyment of it.

In Moulin Rouge Satine realises that if her lover, Christian, stays with her, his life will be in danger from the Duke who wants her for himself. So in order to protect him she lies to Christian, telling him that she does not love him, that she will marry the Duke instead. The audience is aware that her lie is a painful but selfless sacrifice. Our heart goes out to her, as well as to Christian, doubling our emotion.

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, the protagonist, Benjamin Vlahos, an American theoretical physicist, dreams of one day solving his equations to prove that time travel to the past is possible. But we realise that being past his prime, Benjamin is unlikely to ever achieve this, and our compassion for him increases.

In both examples, it is what lies between the lines that carries most of the emotion and power of the story, not the plot.

Summary

Writing scenes where the outer movement runs at an angle to the inner motivation of characters makes for engaging stories.

How to Write Unlikable Characters

Unlikable CharactersUNLIKABLE characters? You’ve read it right. This post is about creating characters we dislike. But hold on. Aren’t we taught that a character has to be likable for our stories to work?

Well, yes. But not all characters have to be likable. Certainly, we have to like the hero. But surely not the villain. Nor his cronies. After all, we need to pit likable characters against unlikable ones if we are to create tension in our stories.

So, how do we make readers and audiences dislike a character? The techniques vary, but here is one approach. Consider these traits, several of which have been drawn from Margret Geraghty’s The Novelist’s Guide. Some are more potent than others, depending on how unlikable you intend to make your character(s).

Unlikable Character Traits and Behaviours

A character might exhibit one or more of these:

Humiliate others
Ignore a plea for help
Be deliberately unkind
Break a promise without a valid reason
Cause physical or mental pain in others – be a bully
Behave selfishly
Smell bad
Exhibit chauvinistic, sexist, or racist behaviour
Poke fun at someone who can’t poke back
Be cruel to animals
Have bad habits – pick his nose in public, spit constantly, etc.
Pick on someone vulnerable (after all, who roots for Goliath?)
Blame the innocent to save his own hide
Lie and cheat

You get the idea. Apart from obvious physical traits such as bad smells and irritating ticks and habits, unlikable people violate our sense of fair play at a fundamental level. They do not treat others as they would like to be treated in return.

Keeping this principle in mind will help you generate any number of new unlikable character traits.

Summary

Negative traits and behaviours make for unlikable characters who serve to balance your cast.

Surprise and Explanation in Stories

SurpriseONE of the joys of reading a well-written story is found in the element of surprise.

A surprise can prevent complacency and help avoid predictability and boredom. Additionally, a well-timed surprise, stemming from an important revelation about a past event or character, can help make sense of the entire story. Placed near the end of a film or novel, it can leave a lasting impression.

Surprise and Explanation

Who can forget the explanatory power of ‘She’s my sister AND my daughter’, when Evelyn reveals the family’s unspeakable secret to Gittes near the end of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown? The revelation not only sheds light on the seemingly puzzling behavior of several characters, but it helps explain the murder at the center of the story.

In my novella, The Nostalgia of Time Travel, the young protagonist, Benjamin Vlahos, fails to understand the reasons why his uncle is disliked by his mother. Consequently he plays a childish prank on him, hoping to drive him away from their home. When his uncle is found dead in his bed the very next day, Benjamin thinks it is as a result of the prank and the guilt stays with him for decades. It seeps into other areas of his life, including his taking the blame for the accidental death of his wife, Miranda. By remaining unresolved the poorly understood event helps to define his life.

I knew that I had a powerful mechanism at my disposal that could ripple through the entire story. I just had to ensure that I used it at the right moment, in this instance, the climax – the nexus of the protagonist’s inner and outer life. I also had to make sure that the explanation it offered was credible. I did so by placing sufficient clues along the way, drawn from the backstory.

Judging from the reviews of The Nostalgia of Time Travel has received thus far, it appears that I may have succeeded.

Summary

A well-crafted, well-timed surprise in your story ties your protagonist’s inner and outer life together and leaves a lasting impression.