Remember, Everything Begins as a Draft

As consumers of entertainment, we have become accustomed to seeing the best version of what is being presented to us.  Whether it’s a novel, a movie, a TV series, or a play, we are witnessing this project at its highest level of completeness and – for lack of a better word – perfection.

You may read a novel and think to yourself, I could never write something that good.  Maybe you’ve come out of a movie thinking, I don’t think I could create a screenplay that great.  This is the big mental block that can invade the minds of creative people in any medium.  We see what has been produced, printed, or staged and our minds begin to doubt our own creativity.  

We wonder if we can ever be that good at what we do.

Consider this: Every film we see, every novel we read, every play we watch started as a draft at some point. Whoever wrote it had to start just like you: with an idea.  They had to cultivate it in their mind, then begin jotting down ideas that bloomed into a rough outline that was then filled with things crossed-out and put in that were better.

We often forget that prolific authors like Stephen King or Judy Blume deal with creative highs and lows while they are crafting a story.  And everyone has to tackle a rough draft at some point in order to get to the next step of revision and editing.  Yes, even the greats have to go through the same process every time they write.

It’s easy to get hung up on what has been published or produced and be intimidated.  But you have to remember that even people who are well-versed in their craft often struggle the same way all creative people do.  It’s just how the creativity game is played.

Creating is hard work for anyone.  We look at artists we admire and think that it comes easy to them.  It really doesn’t.  They, too, put in hundreds of hours to create what we are watching, reading, or listening to. With that perspective in mind, it’s easier to realize that we also have the ability to do great works; as long as we are willing to invest the time, effort, and creative energy to do so.

So, the next time you finish reading a novel or watching a movie and begin to wonder how you could ever write something as good, remember that at one point that brilliant work began as a rough draft that evolved into what you just read or saw.  

You, too, can begin at the draft phase and watch it evolve into something greater.  You just have to take the first step and begin writing and creating.

You can do it!

The video below is a snippet of an interview with Wings and Frasier co-creator David Lee discussing the evolution of the Wings pilot into what it eventually became.  A perfect example of how even those we revere as talented creative types often have to work hard to create something that works.  Enjoy!

Story Exercise: My Story

Below is the draft of the story I wrote for this exercise. It’s a little longer than 500 words – I got carried away – but it was fun to write. Please feel free to include yours in ther comments and share them with others!

I put the items, location, and animal I chose in BOLD.

            This was it.  Leila stood looking out at the night sky, a blanket of stars before her, emptiness below her in the darkness.  She didn’t want to do it; but she knew she had no other choice.  An icy wind whipped through her body and she felt her fingers and toes grow numb.  There was only one way out of this situation.  For too long she had waited.  Agonized. Suffered.  

            And now it came down to this.

            Her phone buzzed to life in her pocket, which startled her.  She fumbled with her numbed fingers to grasp the phone in her jacket pocket.  She saw the name on the screen, closed her eyes, then answered.

            “Hello,” she said as her teeth chattered.

            “Are you coming down the slope soon?” the voice on the other end began.  “We’d like to go get food sometime tonight.”

            “Okay, okay,” Leila said with frustration.  She looked down the snowy hillside of the ski slope.  She was alone and the ski lift had come to a halt.  It was just her.  

            At the edge of a double-black diamond ski slope!

            Why did I think I could do this? she thought to herself.  To impress your sister, duh!

            Her sister who was not impatiently waiting for her with the rest of the group at the bottom of the run.  Her sister who was now calling her to get her to come down.  

            “On my way,” Leila said as she disconnected and put the phone back in her pocket.  “Hope they have good food in the hospital cafeteria,” she said to herself.  “Because this isn’t gonna end well!” 

            She heard a growl.  Was it her stomach?  No, she would have felt that, too.  She looked to her right.  Nothing there.  She heard the growl again.  To her left. She swallowed and looked to her left. A coyotecrept toward her.  It’s mouth in a snarl.

            Leila did her best to stay calm, and reached into a pocket on her ski pants and pulled out a half-eaten candy bar.  “I know chocolate is bad for dogs,” she said, “but I think you can handle this.”  She tossed the candy bar in the coyote’s direction. It looked at the sugary bribe, then back at her.

            “Darn!” she said, then looked down the slope.  “And down we go,” she said in a low voice, hoping the animal eyeing her would stay put.

Leila leaned forward quickly, her skissliding inch-by-inch toward the edge.  She gripped the poles tight, took a deep breath, and felt her body descend.  

The powder churning up around her skis was a comforting sight; she had been terrified it was ice all the way down.  

            Leila felt herself picking up speed.  She wavered a bit, but maintained her balance…at least for the moment.

            Then the ice came.  Her once seemingly sensible speed went from manageable to uncontrollable. The wind whipped through her hair and around her goggles.  Her blue beanie was ripped from her head as she careened faster and faster down the slope.

            With all her might she attempted to form a wedge with the front of her skis to slow herself down, but she hit a bump in the icy terrain that sent her sprawling off balance.  She felt herself launch into the air, her body like a wayward missile with no clear target.

            And she landed on her side, but continued to slide downward.  Pain radiated from her side and the arm she landed on, but she was grateful her phone was in the opposite pocket.  However, she had her sister’s “lucky charm” in her other pocket…of the side she landed on. She shifted as she slid and pulled the lucky charm out to look at it: a small Funko Pop! of Wonder Woman.  

            She chucked it up the slope only to see the coyote making its own slip-sliding way down toward her.  

            Leila’s legs were heavy from her ski boots; her skis were on two separate solo runs down the hill, and from her viewpoint it looked like they would arrive at the bottom before she did!

            Not wanting to wait around for her new friend, Leila shifted head-first down the slope and “swam” the rest of the way down the mountain.

            As she arrived at the bottom of the hill – still on her side – her sister stood over her.  “You couldn’t have done thattwo hours ago?”  her sister said.

            “If I knew it would be that easy,” Leila replied, “I would have!”

            “Where’s my lucky charm?” her sister asked.

            “On the mountain,” Leila said as she awkwardly stood. “But I think the coyote up there will try and get it first.”

            Her sister considered the news.  “I’m good,” Leila’s sister said.  “Dinner?”

            “Yes!” Leila said.

I look forward to reading yours! Have a great weekend!

The Power of Words

Dr. Solomon (John Lithgow) makes a great point in this short clip above.  The dictionary is not only a great resource to check one’s spelling – although spellcheck does most of the heavy lifting for us these days – but it’s also a storehouse of the millions of words that we as writers implement through our own creativity to produce stories, characters, locations, and descriptions designed to entertain audiences.

Too often we will read a great novel, see a well-written film or play, and be intimidated by the awesome creative forces at work before us.  But then we need to step back and remember the above clip from 3rdRock from the Sun.  Every writer, screenwriter, and playwright is using the same dictionary of words that we have at our disposal.  

With practice, determination, and editing, we can also be at the same level of skill and talent as those who have gone before us.  It’s all the same words, it’s how they’re organized that makes the difference.

Today, go and organize some words into a great short story and see what happens!

When it Comes to Your Writing, Who’s Really in Control?

Where do you want your characters to go…or where should they take you?

So, you’ve finally done it. You’ve completed your outline for your novel or short story and you’re ready to sit down and write.  Your fingers are poised over the keys of your computer – or typewriter, if you’re old school – you take a deep breath, and dive into the story.

As you start to dig into story, you realize that your main character is taking you down a storyline that you didn’t outline or anticipate.  In fact, it’s almost as if your protagonist is in control of what they’re saying and doing.  It’s as if you are only there to transcribe the events as they unfold.  A mere voyeur to a story you hadn’t even planned.

This is a good thing!

I’ve had these moments happen many times while writing.  I think I’m going to take the story one place due to planning ahead, and then the main character takes the wheel and we go off on a weed-infested dirt road that I never even knew was there.  It’s at these moments while writing – especially during the drafting process – that it’s best to just sit back and see where things go.

Sometimes you’ll hit a dead end.  Sometimes you’ll learn something new about the character and the choices they make that can have an impact on the story and in turn the character’s interactions with others in the story.  The key during these moments is not to fight the creativity taking hold of your brain and your fingers as the rapidly pound the keys to get every sentence down as fast as possible.

And it’s not only a great method of discovery for your main character.  Supporting characters can benefit and develop greatly during this process of creative surrender.  Maybe you have a character who you feel isn’t strong or dimensional enough; but while writing a sequence that includes them they begin to say things and do things that make them far more interesting and instrumental to the overall story.  That’s always an exciting time!

While I do support writing outlines, I also believe that as creative people we must allow ourselves to give into the temptation of going where our roadmap doesn’t.  Even if you do return to the road you previously paved, you may have learned a thing or two that can benefit your characters – and your story – in the long run.

Have you ever let your characters take the wheel and take your story down a trail you never expected? Leave a comment and let me know!

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 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.