Tag Archives: amwriting

The Sympathetic Protagonist

Othello is a sympathetic but flawed protagonist.

An important requirement in writing is that we deploy a sympathetic protagonist in our story, since the protagonist is the character through whom we experience the tale. 

This does not mean that our protagonist has no weaknesses in his or her character. Indeed, character flaws are what make for a strong character arc – the movement from ignorance to self-awareness, from wrongful to rightful action that drive the story.

But, creating a sympathetic protagonist has become more and more challenging. For who, after all, are our real-life models? Scandals involving politicians, military and religious leaders have eroded our trust in those exemplars.

The result has been the rise of the anti-hero, or, at least, a deeply flawed protagonist who routinely breaks the law and is not redeemed by a positively-trending character arc. 

“A sympathetic protagonist is at the center of readable and watchable stories.”

The notion of a flawed protagonist, as mentioned above, is not new. The great stories of the past are strewn with them – MacbethOthelloHamlet. These tragic protagonists are often redeemed only by their death. But the surge in popularity of flawed heroes in recent times, is noteworthy.

DexterBreaking Bad‘s Walter White, and Ray Donovan are but a few of the protagonists who routinely murder and rob to keep themselves, their businesses, and families safe. 

And yet, we like them enough to drive these shows to the top of the charts. How have the writers of these deeply flawed characters achieved this? Here are some suggestions.

1. The protagonist finds himself/herself in a situation of undeserved misfortune: 

Breaking Bad’s Walter White, for example, is a brilliant chemist who is trapped in a low paying teaching job. To make matters worse he learns he has cancer that requires medical treatment he can’t afford. We cannot help but feel sympathy for his plight. Even when he begins cooking meth to pay for his bills.

2. The law-breaking protagonist is smarter than the law-breakers around him:

Dexter is driven by a pathological need to rid society of serial killers – despite the fact that he himself is one. His father taught him how to kill and he has gotten very good at it. We can’t help rooting for him as he keeps outsmarting both the police and his criminal victims.

3. The protagonist acts for a cause other than his own: 

Ray Donavan lies, conceals, and gets rid of other people’s problems. He often breaks the law to do this. Additionally, he places himself in peril in order to protect his brothers, his wife, his children. We cannot help but admire his loyalty and commitment.

Summary

Understanding how these characteristics operate in deeply flawed protagonists, then, helps to soften our critique of them.

Click on this link to watch my latest YouTube video on how secrets make for great stories.

The kind of writer I want to be …

Is Tolkien the kind of writer you want to be?
Is Tolkien the kind of writer you want to be?

One of the most important questions to ask yourself as you commence your pursuit of writing excellence is what kind of writer you want to be?

If you can’t answer this question off the bat, then ask yourself, what type of movies and novels do you enjoy? Art films and literary novels, or action-packed, genre-driven stories? The Piano and The Spire, or Fast and Furious and Gone Girl? The answer to this second question will nudge you into answering the first one—at least at this point of your writing journey.

“Don’t try to imitate writing that is popular, but is not to your taste. Write what you love to read or watch.”

Generally speaking, popular stories tend to focus on the outer journey—the visible struggle of the hero to attain some tangible goal: to save the world or his family; to uncover a hidden treasure; to overcome a difficult challenge and be rewarded with fame and fortune. 

Literary writing, by contrast, focuses on the inner journey—the hero’s struggle to achieve growth while being pitted against outer challenges, which lack the spectacle of, say, an alien invasion, but are nonetheless hugely impactful to the hero. John Steinbeck’s 1974 novel, The Pearl, for example, tells of the discovery of a large pearl that forever changes the life a poor fishing family, and the village they live in.

Some films and novels manage to strike a balance between literary depth and an exciting plot. Lord of the Rings is a good example of this.

For those of us who enjoy a good, rollicking yarn, but yearn for some deeper meaning, striking this balance is helpful. Enjoying stories that excite us through spectacle and momentum does not mean that we can’t delve into the human heart and spirit, too. A balanced approach invokes characters who dream, suffer and hope, as much as it invokes exciting and imaginative action.

Summary

Discover the kind of writer you are, then be guided by the sort of stories you like to watch or read.

Catch my latest YouTube video by clicking on this link.

Layered writing

Layered writing in Moulin Rouge
Layered writing in Moulin Rouge

A common weakness amongst student writers is a lack of layered writing. In its place is an indulgence of dialogue and action that plays off on the surface, at the level of plot—with more telling than showing.

Typically, this is external action without the sense of an inner life. To remedy this weakness I advise that writers create internal conflict as something that the reader or audience is made aware of, but not the character(s). Readers will feel compassion, suspense, or fear because they will be privy to something that the character may only become aware of later.

“Layered writing means that a story is driven by the inner life of the characters as much as it is by their external challenges.”

My advice to new writers, therefore, is to write scenes where the action is motivated not only by external goals, but by secrets, wounds and suppressed desires, too, though the characters themselves are often unaware of the truth, creating dramatic irony.

In Moulin Rouge, Satine realises that if her lover, Christian, stays with her, he might be murdered by the Duke who wants her for himself. So, to protect him, she lies to him, declaring that she does not love him, but will marry the Duke instead. The audience knows that this lie is a painful but selfless sacrifice. Our heart goes out to her, as well as to Christian, who is devastated by this.

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, the protagonist, Benjamin Vlahos, an American mathematician, dreams of one day solving an equation that proves that time travel to the past is possible. But as we realise that Benjamin is well past his prime and is unlikely to ever achieve this, our compassion for him grows.

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

Summary

Writing scenes where the external action is supported by the inner life of the characters makes for engaging stories.

Catch my latest video on making your scenes stand out, by clicking on this link!

What Motivates the Protagonist?

Fear motivates the protagonist, Grace Stewart, to stay locked up in her house for the duration of the story.
Fear motivates the protagonist, Grace Stewart, to stay locked up in her house for the duration of the story.

What motivates the protagonist in your story? The very character that ought to be relentlessly driven?

In The Others, Grace Stewart wants to keep her children and herself safe in their large house until her husband returns from the war. She keeps the curtains drawn and the doors locked, never venturing outside. But strange things keep happening. Doors are heard opening and closing. Curtains are being pulled open. Strange voices are heard.

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

But truly good stories do not only pit the protagonist against external obstacles. Good stories pit the external against the internal.

“What motivates the protagonist is the conflict between her want and her need, a conflict she doesn’t acknowledge until the end of the story.”

Stories achieve this by hiding a need in the protagonist that is at odds with the want that lies on the conscious level. Think of the protagonist having a conscious desire as his want, and an unconscious requirement for happiness as his need. What drives the drama is the conflict between the two. This conflict is resolved only when the protagonist comes to realise that his need, not his want, is his true goal. Indeed, it is this very recognition that proves that the character has grown and is ready to move on.

In The Others, Grace needs to discover the metaphysical truth about herself and her children. Only then can she identify her true goal.

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 forgiving himself. In Scarab, Jack is able to save the woman he loves only through sacrifice – by walking away from the relationship he so desperately desires. 

Stories, driven by the tension between what the protagonist wants and what he needs, fascinate, deepening the tale.

Summary

Good stories are driven by the tension between what the protagonist wants and what he needs.

For my latest YouTube video on how to use metaphors in stories click on this link!

Check it out!

What is your story question?

The story question – how long can the Abbott family survive?

The first act of a story performs several tasks, including introducing the story question.

It also introduces readers and audiences to the world of the characters and their role in it. The act contains the inciting incident and the first turning point, and establishes mood and genre.

The central question the story must answer by the end of act three is something that the writer might easily neglect to emphasise in the dash to lay the tracks the story needs to ride on.

In Making a Good Script Great, Linda Seger advises that once the defining question is raised, usually within the first fifteen minutes of a film, and certainly before the first turning point of the story, everything that follows is in response to it.

“The central story question drives the story to its ultimate conclusion.”

A Quiet Place revolves around this central question: How long can the Abbott family survive in a post-apocalyptic world inhabited by blind, monstrous aliens with a powerful sense of hearing? In Edge of Tomorrow, the question is: Can William Cage survive as part of the allied force fighting the Mimics? In E.T. it is: Will E.T. find a way to go back home?

In a story with an up ending the answer to the central question is usually, “yes”, and favours the hero. 

In a more ambiguous story, however, the answer is not clear-cut. In Donnie Darko, a non-linear film, Donnie is absent from home at the start of the story when a jet engine crashes into his bedroom, so he survives. But the incident is replayed at the end of the tale. This time Donnie stays at home and is killed.

Linking the answer to some deeper revelation that has been previously withheld is a powerful way to bring the outer and inner strands of a story together at the climax. This technique creates an exclamation mark within the final act.

Summary

The first act poses the central story question that is only answered at the climax of the third act.

Watch my new YouTube video on non-linear stories by clicking on this link.

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.

Summary

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

The good story – how to get started.

The film, Big, evidences a tight narrative technique which results in a good story.
The film, Big, evidences a tight narrative technique which results in a good story.

There are many ways to get started on a good story. Here are two of them:


1: Be gripped by inspiration and allow it to guide your hand.

OR

2: Use existing knowledge of writerly techniques to write and edit your story until it sparkles.

Now, you have little control over the first. Inspiration has a will of its own. Like a haughty cat, it may ignore your most entreating calls.

The second way, however, is yours to summon. You can utilise your knowledge of story structure to get started right away. Sites such as mine, and many others, offer advice for free—for the love of story.

Will this way guarantee a great story? Maybe not. But it will set you on the path of writing a well-structured one.

Learn your craft by adding to your chest of techniques every day. Work hard to be the best you can be and one day you will be.

In rereading Linda Seger’s Advanced Screenwriting, I was reminded of the usefulness of certain practices—in this case, the practice of naming scenes according to their function as a way of staying focused on how each narrative segment performs its task in service of the plot and character.

“A good story can be expressed through a series of well-conceived scenes flowing from a solid story structure.”

Apart from the inciting incident, the two turning points, the midpoint, the climax and the resolution that we all know about, Seger offers several others: the establishing scene, exposition scene, love scene, confrontation scene, pay-off scene, resolution scene, realisation scene, decision scene and action scene. Most stories have an assortment of these. It’s up to you which ones to include in your tale.

Here’s an example of a decision-realisation-action scene cluster:

In the film Big, Josh decides to put money into a vending machine at a carnival in order to become ‘big’. In the next scene he realises that he is ‘big’ and this leads to a series of actions as a response to the complications of being an adult. The overall result is a new situation that sees him working for a toy company as an adult though, inwardly, he remains a child.

In this scene cluster causally linked scenes make for tighter writing. Knowing the type of scene you’re embarking on tells you how to execute it.

In the light of this, I wouldn’t be surprised if that cat, resenting your sudden independence, and secretly craving attention, doesn’t decide to jump into your lap, after all.

Summary

Write a good story by utilising your understanding of the differing functions of scene within the context of story structure.

Want to know more about how to pace your scenes? Follow the link to my latest YouTube video!

Literature versus commercial writing – and the winner is…

To Kill a Mocking Bird is a wonderful example of literature that proved to be a commercial success.

I remember reading several comments on social media that criticised literature and art film while praising genres such as Romance, Crime, and low-brow Science Fiction. Literary stories and art movies were seen as boring, introverted, and static while the latter were described as pacy and exciting.

Now, it is true that literature and art movies, at their worst, can be torturously boring. But the same is true of popular novels and films – unrealistic characters and settings juxtaposed against weak plots spun around improbable actions resulting in formulaic endings. And all in the name of entertainment.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t find stories peopled by thin, unrealistic characters entertaining at all. In fact I find many of them to be unreadable and unwatchable. This is not to say that there isn’t value and skill in popular stories. I would not be writing in established genres if I didn’t believe in convention. 

But I also believe that there are things we can learn from literature and art film.

Things such as integrity, uniqueness, and insight that lead to a strong connection with fictional characters.

“Literature need not cede exciting plots to commercial fiction. Literature can combine plot with well-crafted characters to create stories that are simultaneously gripping and insightful.”

I think where literature and art films often leave themselves open to criticism is that they are big on insights about characters facing ordinary problems and small on exciting plots. It is almost as if some of these works see plot as something artificial, contrived. Several recent Pulitzer and Booker winning novels relate the life history of protagonists in a way that seems like a mannered study in chronology, albeit crammed with perceptive observations about everyday life.

But the presence of an interesting plot is not antithetical to the search for truth and meaning – the purview of more serious works. After all, one of the most cherished modern stories, To Kill a Mocking Bird, manages to do both.

And, here, I think, may lie the solution to writing stories that are potentially more accessible to ordinary readers and audiences while being endowed with deeper layers of meaning – namely, stories that contain exciting and meaningful plots. 

I have a suspicion that the likes of Dickens, Mark Twain, and H. G. Wells, all popular writers in their day, might have agreed with me.

Summary

Literature or art films driven by strong and exciting plots make for popular and meaningful reading and viewing.

Unlikeable Characters – how to write them

Joffrey Baratheon, ranks amongst one of the most unlikeable 
characters of all time.
Joffrey Baratheon ranks amongst the most unlikeable characters of all time.

How to write unlikeable characters? No, this is not a typo. This article is about creating characters we dislike, or despise.

But hold on. Aren’t we supposed to write likeable characters? Indeed so, but not all characters need to be likable. Certainly, we have to like the protagonist. But surely not the antagonist and his allies? How else can we all pit likeable against unlikeable characters to create tension?

So, how do we make readers and audiences dislike a character? Here’s 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).

“Unlikeable Characters are an important part of the story-world. They are a foil to the kinder, more likeable characters and help define the scope of the moral terrain the story sets out.”

Unlikeable characters demonstrate some of the following behaviour:

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

You get the idea. Apart from physical traits such as bad smells and irritating ticks and habits, unlikeable people violate our sense of fairness. They do not treat others as they would like to be treated themselves. Keeping this principle in mind will help you generate unlikeable characters as a counterweight to the likeable ones.

Check out my latest YouTube video: How to structure your story

Summary

Negative behaviour makes for unlikeable characters who serve as a foil to the likeable characters in your story.

Story beats – how to write them

A typewriter as an illustration of story beats.
Great stories are made up of powerful story beats that perform act-specific functions.

What are story beats, and how does one write them?

Last week I showed how to turn a story premise into a summary by adding a life-altering event to the hero’s path, and factoring in the ending of the story.

This filled out the story somewhat, but it was still missing important narrative beats. In order to make the acquisition of these beats a little easier let us now pose an overarching story question as well as three act-specific ones. Note that the overall story question overlaps with that of the last act’s.

The overall story question is: Does the hero succeed in defeating a tribe of cannibals to lead his followers to a place of safety?

This question helps to keep our sights trained on the through-line of the story—what has to be answered at the end of the tale.

Following on from that, we can use our summary to generate appropriate incidents within each act. Remembering that each act is governed by a question aimed at providing a narrative outcome, we have: 

Act One: Is the land above as idyllic as it first appears to be? 

How about: 

After a short euphoric encounter with the land above in which our hero notices a large eagle watching them from the sky, the landscape turns gloomy: The sun dims under thick plumes of smoke wafting over from the distance, the bones of dead creatures proliferate on the ground, the hero’s grandfather becomes ill and has to be carried on a make-shift stretcher, and acid rain begins to waft down. 

A day or so later a tribe of disfigured wretches approaches the group. A terrible storm is brewing and the tribe offers to lead the youngsters to safety. The leader seems in awe of our hero, rambling on about the legend of a blue-eyed king who will emerge from below the ground to lead the world to salvation. Speaking in a broken dialect, he promises to return the next day for our hero’s decision. 

That night our hero falls into a stupor where he dreams that the tribe is really a band of cannibals responsible of much of the hellish state of the terrain. Convinced that his vision is prophetic he awakens the others and persuades them to leave their campsite before the tribe returns. 

“Story beats are best generated by asking questions related to the state of the hero’s plight within the context of each act.”

Act Two: How does the hero manage to stay ahead of the cannibals against the odds?

Perhaps our hero forms an occult bond with the giant eagle that has taken an interest in the band of youngsters? Perhaps he can see through the eagle’s eyes, giving him an edge as he and his followers flee across the dangerous terrain?

But then the cannibal leader shoots down the eagle with a poison arrow at the story’s mid-point and everything changes.

Our hero now realises he can no longer keep the group safe from the murderous tribe. He has to change strategy: He willingly offers himself up as a sacrifice if they agree to let his followers live. The leader, who is obsessed with the idea of stealing the hero’s power by having him accept a humiliating defeat, agrees. 

Act Three:  What goes wrong with the bargain and how does the hero finally outsmart and defeat the cannibal leader and his tribe?

Perhaps our hero has foreseen his own death in another dream and knows the outcome of this deal—something he has kept secret from the others. However, he has bought himself time; time to contaminate his body with poison from the enemy’s own stock, thus ensuring that the entire cannibal tribe is wiped out after the feast, allowing his followers to escape. 

This final act answers the overall story question too—the hero does indeed defeat the enemy, but at the cost of his own life.

Although these beats are far from complete—I still need to tie in the hero’s weakness/flaw/secret (his character arc) into the antagonist’s motivation and plot twists in a more detailed way—they do grant me confidence about the potential of the story.

Summary
Story questions resolve into narrative events within the context of each act.