The Ticking Clock

Have you ever watched a movie or read a book and it never feels like the story is moving toward something?  There’s no big event, no big game or show, no sense of a ticking clock either literally or figuratively?  That lack of a ticking clock can oftentimes result in a meandering story that causes an audience to lose interest pretty fast.

When you set out to create a sense of urgency or stakes – as I talked about in the last post – it’s always good to create a finite end point for your main character to reach by the end of the story.  Do they have to get somewhere by a certain time?  Do they have to find the killer before he strikes again?  Do they have to track down the stolen pygmy goats to get them to the holiday festival?

Creating a deadline for your main character will also help you focus your story and your main character’s goals over the course of the narrative.  When you know by what moment the character will know whether not they have reached their goal, you can figure out what obstacles and opposing forces to throw at them that will create the best chaos and sense of urgency for them and the audience.

Let’s use a movie most people have seen: Independence Day.  Here’s a movie that starts with a pretty intense ticking clock: one that shows when the alien ships will launch their first coordinated attack around the world.   That sense of urgency continues with a ticking clock that gives them an eventual goal to disable the alien mothership in order to stop the alien ships on Earth from executing another mass attack.  The film uses literal countdown clocks throughout to show the sense of urgency and to guide the story toward its climax on the 4thof July.

Now, imagine if the ships showed up and David (Jeff Goldblum) discovered that they would attack in six months instead of 28 minutes.  Yes, there is a ticking clock, but the stakes and urgency evaporate.  In six months they could evacuate all the major cities and probably find a way to defeat the aliens prior to their first attack. 

So, as you develop your story, try and see if there is some event or final battle your main character can be moving toward in order to create a deadline with a sense of urgency.

What Are Your Story’s Stakes?

What’s at risk if your main character doesn’t achieve their goal by the end of the story?  In other words: what are the stakes?  Will they lose their life?  Will someone they need to find lose theirs?  Will the serial killer strike again?  Will the world end?  Will they lose the knitting competition? 

Stakes are what keep your main character – and your audience – motivated to keep going.  If the stakes are too low, then your audience begins to wonder what’s in it for them if they keep watching or reading.  And if the stakes for your main character are so minimal that they can see the solution to their problem will be an easy one, then there really is no conflict or dramatic tension in the narrative to drive the main character forward.

When you think about the stakes and the obstacles your main character must face to reach their goal, ask yourself if they are challenging enough to actually elicit change and growth in your main character.  Will they have to sacrifice something?  Will they have to change their behavior or an aspect of themselves in order to reach their goal?  And what will it mean for them if they don’t reach the goal and the stakes result in failure?

When it comes to stakes, it’s okay to paint your main character into a corner.  It’s okay to give them a challenge that seems insurmountable to overcome.  In doing this you create a heightened level of tension that in turn keeps your audience glued to the screen or page.  How will they get out of this jam?  Will they have help?  How will overcoming this obstacle help them when the next one appears?

Also, too, remember that stakes are relative to the story you are telling.  If your main character is determined to win a quilting bee, the stakes probably won’t be: Win the bee or the world will be destroyed.  On the other hand, if the world is at stake, there should be a sense of urgency driving your main character to act, which will also create a sense of urgency in the audience.

And when it comes to creating urgency, nothing helps better than a Ticking Clock, which we will explore on Thursday!

Have You Heard About NaNoWriMo?

This coming Thursday, November 1, 2018, National Novel Writing Month begins.  If you have never heard of it, I encourage you to take part in NaNoWriMo, which is a worldwide event where writers are encouraged to sign-up and write 50,000 words between November 1 and November 30.

This is a great way to create a writing routine and discipline yourself into writing every day.  It’s also a great way to get a jump start on a rough draft of a new story, or even to motivate yourself to finish one you have already started.

Either way, it’s an opportunity to have a set writing goal that will keep you motivated to reach that 50,000-word mark by the end of November. 

You can sign-up here at the official NaNoWriMo site and check out the other stuff they offer.

Happy Writing!

A Closer Look: Antagonists, Part Three

As writers, much like actors, we are given the unique opportunity to live as many different lives as we can imagine and create.  It’s a power that enables us to explore new lands, create jaw-dropping scenarios, and live vicariously through the senses of those whom we could never be in real life.

And that’s why as a writer you should embrace your antagonist 100%.

This is your chance to live in the skin of someone who can do and say things you wouldn’t do and say.  This is your chance to cause chaos and in a peaceful world.  This is your chance to disrupt your main character’s normal life and give them a reason to fight for their return to normalcy. 

Think about your favorite movie, TV, or book antagonists. Someone had to create them, and someone definitely had fun writing them.  This is your chance to have the same level of fun.  It doesn’t mean that you have to agree with or condone the character’s actions, but you can explore what it would be like to engage in those actions and see the resulting chaos that ensues.

This is why it’s important to enjoy what you write and enjoy the characters that you write. 

In that rough draft, don’t be afraid to “go there” with your characters.  You can make your antagonist as heartless, as nasty, as evil, and as morally reprehensible as you want.  Then, if you feel it’s too much, scale it back when you revise the story.  Never edit or second-guess yourself as you write a rough draft. 

Allow your creative mind to take that journey into darkness with your antagonist.

In doing this, you will help mold and shape a stronger force for your main character to challenge and battle as the climax of the story nears.  You want your audience to believe that the main character has truly met their match, and that there may be no way to defeat this opposing force no matter how strong the protagonist appears to be. 

Give us a reason to doubt that the protagonist will win in the end.  This creates a sense of tension and suspense in the audience’s mind, which draws them even deeper into the story.

Whether it’s a story about a pie baking contest or one with world-ending stakes, the main character needs a strong, dimensional, and intriguing antagonist to compete against in order to create strong conflict and dramatic tension. 

Embrace your antagonist as much as you do your protagonist and your story will be all the better for it.

A Closer Look: Antagonists, Part Two

Should you like your antagonist?  Short answer: Yes.  Now, this doesn’t mean that you have to agree with their actions, their ideas, or their lack of moral clarity, but as a writer you need to be able to live inside the character’s head and give their actions as much meaning and importance as the main character. 

Another reason to like your antagonist: you will be living with them for a while, especially if you are writing a script or novel, so you have to be able to “work with them” in order to create an effective story. If you have created a character that you find so morally repugnant and repulsive that you can’t write scenes or chapters with them, then maybe it’s time to change the character or scale back what you don’t like about them. 

If they are in your story, they deserve your time and attention. 

Also remember that the antagonist feels that they are in the right on their side of the story.  They feel that what they are doing is necessary and just as important as whatever the main character is up to.  If they didn’t feel this way they wouldn’t be so strongly opposed to the main character getting what they want. 

All stories are a matter of perspective.

And while you have created a compelling and dimensional main character for us to follow over the course of the story, your antagonist should also be compelling and dimensional.  When you begin to develop this character, ask yourself:

  • What was their life like before the story began? 
  • How did they get to this point in their life?
  • What motivates them?  What are their hopes, dreams, fears, likes and dislikes, etc.?
  • What do they want in the story, and why?
  • Why do they oppose the main character’s goal?
  • What happens if the antagonist doesn’t achieve their goal?

Using these questions as a starting point, you can start to create a more realized and fully formed antagonist for your main character to deal with.  There is always a story behind why a character has evolved into who they are at this point in time when your story begins.  It’s your job as a writer to understand that story and use it to create a stronger antagonist.

On Friday we will continue or exploration of antagonists.

A Closer Look: Antagonists, Part One

Antagonists.  At the very base level they are the character that prevents your main character from reaching their desired target, which results in the dramatic conflict the propels the protagonist – and in turn, the story – forward.  It is for this reason that this character needs to be given some attention by you, the writer, in order to make sure that your main character doesn’t have an easy time achieving their intended goal.

At the root of the word, “antagonist,” is the word “antagonize,” and the dictionary definition of this root word is: “to incur or provoke the hostility of,” or “to act in opposition to.”  Either one of these works in describing the main reason for his opposing character’s existence in your story.  They are there to initiate the change that turns your main character’s world upside down. 

This doesn’t mean that this character has to be some egomaniacal supervillain, especially if you are writing a real-world story.  It just means that this particular person’s actions must be contrary to your main character’s in order for there to be conflict throughout your narrative. 

When you begin to dig deeper into your antagonist, I would suggest using the basic formula presented a couple posts ago, but placing the antagonist in the “hero” spot.  What does your antagonist want?  What is their goal in the story?  Why does the main character oppose what they are doing and what their goal is? 

By giving depth and dimension to your antagonist, you can make them and their goals feel more real to the audience.  Yes, we are supposed to be rooting for the main character, but you as a writer need to get inside the opposition’s head and find out what makes them tick, makes them want what they want, and who they were before the story began.

I feel it’s a cop-out to spend tons of time on your main character and then just toss in an opposing force that is one-dimensional with no real development as a character.  Even if you don’t dig into the antagonist’s backstory in the narrative, you still need to know for yourself why they are how and they are and why they are doing what they are doing.

Wednesday, we will continue this conversation as we explore more about developing a strong antagonist for your story.

A Closer Look: Story Antagonists

Starting this Monday, we will explore the exciting and complex world of story antagonists.  No matter what you call them in your story, they are the primary character in opposition to your main character; the one ultimately preventing your protagonist from achieving their goal.  

Until then, who or what is your favorite fictional antagonist and why?  Leave a comment and let me know.  I look forward to your responses.  

Have a great weekend!

The Basic Story Formula: An Effective Template

Most commercial films, TV series, and novels can be boiled down to one simple formula:

Hero + Goal + Opposition = Conflict, which = Drama

Let’s break this down into its respective parts.

The HERO, Heroine, or Protagonist is the main character we follow over the course of the story. Their hopes, dreams, fears, wants, needs, and desires become ours as we vicariously follow them throughout the narrative.  They are the character with which the writer wants us to identify with, empathize or sympathize with.  They become our avatar, giving us a role within the story through their eyes and experiences.

Now, that main character wants something.  They need something.  They are after something.  And that something (the GOAL) is what sets things in motion for the character, and in turn creates a series of events that the character must experience and surpass in order to reach the intended goal.

What’s preventing the HERO from achieving their GOAL?  It’s an obstacle, a unyielding force, and foe, a villain, an antagonist…OPPOSITION. Someone or something is causing them problems on their way to reaching their intended goal.  And while there may be a main antagonist for the protagonist to face and defeat, the antagonist will definitely throw plenty of obstacles and other issues the protagonist’s way as they attempt to achieve their goal.

And if you and a protagonist after something and someone or something trying to prevent them from reaching said goal, you will create CONFLICT.  It is through conflict that stories create DRAMA.  All of these elements are important in order to drive the action and events forward in your story, to create suspense, to create tension, and to give your audience a desire to see what happens next.

Pick a mainstream film genre and this formula fits.  Superhero? Yep.  Action?  Definitely. Sci-fi?  You bet.  Romantic-Comedy?  Uh-huh. Western?  Yup. 

I’ll use a recent blockbuster as an example:  Avengers: Infinity War. (SPOILER ALERT!)

Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely talked about in an article that Thanos was the true hero of the film. Having that information, and knowing the basic story of the film, we can plug in the following variables:

HERO (Thanos) + GOAL (retrieve all six Infinity Stones to implement final plan) + OPPOSITION (The Avengers and The Guardians of the Galaxy) = CONFLICT (plenty of teams of superheroes trying to stop Thanos from getting all the stones), which = DRAMA (plenty of dramatic and tragic moments befall everyone as Thanos moves toward his goal)

We are following Thanos on his journey.  It’s his character arc that is center stage, and therefore he is the main character of Avengers: Infinity War.  And, as the screenwriters state: “This is the hero’s journey for Thanos,” McFeely explained. “By the end of the hero’s journey, our main character, our protagonist — at least, in this case — gets what he wants.”

So, as you begin to construct your story, try and plug in these basic elements first as a foundation to build on.  Hey, if it works for a film that made $2,046,626,158 worldwide, it’s a safe bet it’s a tried and true formula for creating a strong story.