Monthly Archives: June 2021

Audience participation – how to get it

Audience participation in The Fugitive
Audience participation in The Fugitive

Sometimes writers try to solicit audience participation by injecting more action into their stories. They erroneously add a fight scene here or a chase scene there in the belief that it will capture the audience through sheer pace alone. They fail to realise that action works best only if it is built upon the foundation of rising stakes, anticipation, suspense.

Firstly, the audience has to care about the character whose life is placed in peril. This means the character has to be finely crafted to evoke sympathy. Crafting sympathetic characters in a feature film or novel is crucial if we are to care about the story at all. I have written about this topic extensively on this site.

At the level of plot, the story benefits through setbacks that delay the hero’s achieving the story goal. Like the drawing back of an arrow, a setback allows the shaft to travel all the faster when released. The setbacks take several forms – barriers and reversals being the most common.

Think about the number of barriers that Sam Gerard encounters in trying to find Richard Kimble in The Fugitive. Each ramps up the tension by allowing Kimble to stay one step ahead and increases our involvement in the story. 

“Audience participation is essential if your story is to succeed. Work at learning the craft until it is mastered.”

How about the reversal in Edge of Tomorrow when Major William Cage meets with General Brigham who is in charge of operations?

The General wants Cage to film the Allied assault against the enemy for purposes of morale. Cage wants no part of it. When Cage tries to blackmail Brigham to force him to reconsider his decision, he ends up being stripped of his rank and sent to the front as a lowly private instead. It is a reversal that sets up the entire story.

In my science fiction novel, Scarab, the protagonist, Jack Wheeler, is confronted with a devastating choice in trying to rescue the woman he loves. He can save her from certain death, but only if he stays away from her forever. It is a reversal in expectation that increases our involvement in the story.

Placing your hero in a situation of undeserved misfortune, then tightening the screws, is one technique that is bound to help increase audience participation in your stories


A sympathetic hero, in a feature film or novel, who encounters obstacles and reversals in trying to achieve his goal, increases audience participation in the story.

Catch my latest YouTube video on how to write story hooks by clicking on this link.

How to start a story – questions and answers

Useful tips on how to start a story.
Useful tips on how to start a story.

One way to start a story quickly is to know your characters.

In his chapter titled, Developing your Character – Defining Trait, in The Dramatic Writer’s Companion, Will Dunne explains that one way to do this is to interrogate your characters off the bat. Sit your characters down in your mind’s eye and ask them a series of telling questions.

Ask the character: What makes you truly angry? Then follow it up with: Can you trace this anger to a past incident, perhaps in your childhood?

Continue with: What do you fear the most? Can you think of when you first felt it?

Balance it with a more positive emotion: Who/what do you love deeply and irresistibly? What would you do to have that love returned, or, if an object, acquired?

“Start a story by interrogating your characters as a first step. Ask the character(s) questions related to strong emotions. Use the answers you receive to fashion characters and story beats.”

Having gotten answers to these questions ask yourself: How do these emotions manifest in a dominant trait in the character? Does the trait originate from a physical ‘wound’—such as a limp or a speech defect? A sociological wound arising from a character having being demeaned or ridiculed because of her poverty or social standing? A psychological wound stemming from child-abuse or the like?

Lastly, try to project the dominant trait onto the story’s outer journey—the plot. Is the persuit of the goal the character’s attempt to heal the wound?

This process might not seem like much, but in truth, it forms the basis of good story preparation. Give it a try.


A quick way to start a story is to interrogate your characters in a way that reveals three key emotions—anger, fear, and love.

Follow this link to my YouTube video on improving your minor scenes!

The Moral Premise – how to harness it.

The power of the moral premise
The power of the moral premise.

What is the moral premise? How does it differ from a dramatic premise? And why do you need it anyway? 

In his book, The Moral Premise, Stanley D. Williams points out that most commercially successful stories are forged upon the anvil of a moral premise—a clear message to audiences and readers about the reward or punishment associated with embarking on a path of virtue as opposed to a path of vice.

Stories that embody a universal truth about the human condition ring true, and, providing that other components are present—good characterisation, dialogue, as well as an intriguing plot—people are likely to reward such stories with good book or ticket sales.

The moral premise is a sentence that captures the meta-story of the tale—what the story is really about on the inside, whereas the dramatic premise captures what it is about on the outside.

Macbeth is an ambitious Thane who is triggered by a prediction that he will become king. Encouraged by his wife, he murders the rightful king and usurps his throne. This is the dramatic premise of the story.

But what the story is really about is its value-defining premise—how unchecked ambition leads to the murder of a king, and what consequences flow from such an act.

“The moral premise is the true pilot of the story, guiding all actions and events that comprise the tale.”

The moral premise has two parts. Together they encapsulate the totality of the moral landscape with virtue and vice on opposite poles. Simply stated: Virtue leads to a good outcome, but vice leads to a bad outcome. Macbeth is the much loved Thane of Glamis, respected by the king, and the wider community of friends and kingsmen. His initial state of virtue leads to love and praise within his rightful social place.

But his murder of the king activates the second part of the moral premise, his hidden vice—unchecked ambition leads to murder and mayhem.

Defining the premise in this way allows you to construct a tale in which the protagonist’s inner Journey from virtue to vice or from vice to virtue plays out as an outer journey for all to see.


The moral premise describes the protagonist’s movement from vice to virtue or virtue to vice, while the dramatic premise describes its physical enactment.

Click on the link to watch my latest YouTube video on how to Use Dramatic Irony in Stories

Constructing characters – who, what, how, and why?

The Spire, a masterful study in constructing characters.
The Spire, a masterful study in constructing characters.

As writers we are constantly engaged in constructing characters who hurt, desire and dream. We try to imbue them with deep passions and a need to achieve their goals at any cost. We try to write characters who are complex, multi-layered.

But how do we achieve this, practically? In her book, Advanced Screenwriting, Dr. Linda Seger suggests that 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?

One way to discover a character’s personality is to interrogate her.

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

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 goal.

Why is the character driven? What is the psychology behind the need?

How does she get what she want? 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?

“A key to constructing characters is to ask questions that drill down to the defining aspects of identity and personality.”

In The Spire, (who) Jocelin, Dean of the Cathedral, (what) is obsessed with erecting a 404 foot tall spire (why) because he believes he has been chosen for this task to bring the people of the town closer to God. The project (how) is funded by his aunt, Lady Alison, a mistress  of the former King. But Jocelin’s plans fly against the advice of many, especially the master builder, Roger Mason, who believes the cathedral’s foundation cannot take the added weight. As the novel unfolds we learn that the project has more to do with Jocelin’s unyielding will than his desire to exalt his people by glorifying God through the building of the spire.

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

But antagonists too believe they have values. The difference is that their view is subjective. A typical protagonist, by contrast, displays a more objective value system shared by the reader or audience. Interestingly, we get the most out of our characters by creating tension between their obsession and their value system. This is because inner conflict makes for absorbing stories. 


Ask the who, what, how, and why questions before embarking on constructing characters. The answers will help you write a more convincing story.

Click on this LINK to view my new YouTube video on how to create emotion in writing!