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.

Writing Tip #10: Writing Is a Marathon, Not a Sprint

Writing is a process. It takes creativity, time, energy, and a lot of thought to bring story and characters to life in a coherent and compelling manner.  And while ideas may come quickly at times, the art of breathing life into those ideas and making them into solid and dimensional stories can take a lot longer than we sometimes realize.

When it comes to writing a novel, a screenplay, a TV pilot, or a play, we sometimes have to remind ourselves that the creative process is a marathon and not a sprint.  It can take weeks, months, even years for a story and its characters to gel and come together in a way that you’re satisfied with.

Even with outlines, character bios, and other notes, a story that you know backwards and forwards can take a lot longer to formulate and write as a 300-plus page book or a 110-page screenplay.

Rushing to get a first draft done is fine, but when it comes to fine-tuning and really generating quality work that you’re proud to show to others, that’s when the marathon truly begins. 

The key to good writing is to give yourself the time and the pace you need that works best for you, especially if you are writing for yourself.  Obviously, if you are being paid to write, it’s best to meet the deadlines and pace of the person who hired you.  But if it’s all on you, don’t pressure yourself into rushing out your final product.  Make sure it’s your best work; something you are proud to show the world.

In our world of instant gratification, it can be hard to sit down day in and day out and work on the same story over the course of many months or years.  But just know that at the end of the day, thanks to your patience, you will have the satisfaction of knowing that you have done your best work. 

And readers and audiences will be grateful for the time you invested by investing their time into your future creative endeavors.

Writing Tip #9: Don’t Be Afraid to Rough-Up Your Protagonist

You’ve created the perfect protagonist for your story.  They’re smart, funny, liked by other characters, and best of all, you love them, too!  Now it’s time for them to enter the world of your story and there’s a fear deep inside you that wants to protect them at all costs.  After all, this precious creation should travel through the ebbs and flows of the story unscathed and come out on the other end as perfect as they were when they started their journey.

This is one of the worst things you can do.  Not just as a writer, but to your audience.

Your audience – whether reading or watching your story – wants to go on a journey with your main character.  They want to experience, grow, change, and be moved by what happens to your main character. If your character doesn’t go through some metamorphosis over the course of the narrative, an audience will grow bored with what they are reading or watching.

And you definitely don’t want that!

Don’t be afraid to rough up your main character.  Put them through traumatic events.  Shake them up emotionally, psychologically, physically.  It’s through how they deal with these types of events that their character arc grows over the course of the story (which is just as important as your plot points and story arc).  You want your main character to wind up in a different place on the final page of your script or novel than they were at the beginning.

Audiences expect that.

Exercise:

Watch your favorite movie and write down what the main character is put through over the course of the story.  Where were they at the start of the film?  Where are they at the end?  Write down 5 to 7 events over the course of the film that caused them to change as a character?  Are they a stronger character because of these events?

Now that you’ve taken the time to see how it’s done, you can apply these same principles to your main character.  Don’t be afraid to take them to the limits to see how they handle stressful, dire, or deadly situations.  It’s through these events that your character becomes a more realized and dimensional being for audiences to root for.

Writing Tip #8: How to Know Your Writing Project is Done

When do you know if your novel, your screenplay, your play, or other writing is complete?  When do you know when it’s to the point that it’s ready to submit to a contest, or publish, or shown to an agent, a producer, or director?  It can be a tricky situation that’s hard to gauge.  After all, is any work ever really finished?  Isn’t there always room for improvement?

A work is never really finished 100%.  Every movie, novel, TV series, and play could have changes made to story, character, plot twists, etc.  We’ve all watched movies or TV shows and thought up better ideas and dialogue than what’s being presented on the screen.  The creative process, even with a single project, has no definitive end. It’s up to you, the writer, the decide when the work is at its pinnacle of creativity and quality.  And there are a few ways I check to see if my work is ready for the COMPLETED stamp.

I usually will give a project a few weeks to rest before I pick it up and read it again.  If I read through it and find that I’m only changing words or re-arranging sentences and not finding major plot holes or incomplete storylines, I know that the work is pretty solid.  Now, if you decide after reading your work that you want to completely change something that will have a major impact on the story and your characters, then it’s not completed to your creativity and quality standards.

Another sign is if I’m thinking of some great line of dialogue, or description and I go to find the chapter or scene and…what I was thinking is already there.  To me that means that I have pushed myself to the creative limit with this particular project to the point that even my new ideas are already present in the story. 

If you feel that adding more would feel like your padding the story just to add pages, or by cutting stuff out it would just be for the sake of cutting it out so you feel like you’re doing something with the project, then it’s time to consider that it’s done.

If you let someone read it – particularly someone who will be honest with their feedback – and they don’t come back with any story-altering critiques or anything major that they didn’t like, maybe it’s time to consider the work is complete.  Obviously, if this person finds grammar, spelling, or tense issues in the work, those are quick fixes that should not preclude you from proclaiming the work as complete.

The key is that the project is complete in YOUR opinion.  You are its creator, so you are the decider in this situation.  Now, if you are writing for someone and they disagree that it’s complete, then that’s an entirely different situation (when writing for pay, it’s when the person paying you says the project is completed).  But if you are writing this novel or script for yourself, on your terms, and you feel that you’ve taken it as far as you can, then it’s probably finished.

I think, instinctually, you know when a project is completed to your exacting standards.  And while perfection is a level that can keep creative people from presenting their work to the world, you know deep inside that moment when your novel, screenplay, or play comes pretty darn close to being perfection.

And then it’s time to let the world read your words, hear your voice, and know your story.

Writing Tip #7: Projecting Emotion

You’re a writer.  You’re also a human being.  A human being with emotions and feelings that can be valuable tools when it comes to your writing.  Gauging your writing by how you feel while writing something is an important aspect of the writing process, and one that can help you connect on a deeper level with your readers.

You are your first audience for your work.  The ideas are in your head, coming together, piece by piece, until you write or type them out for your eyes to see as words on the page or screen.  And you just stare blankly at them.  Words.  Sigh. What you wrote doesn’t excite you or energize you.  It’s just boring words.

Think about how a reader would feel reading that dull string of words that even you didn’t feel excited about.

This is the last thing you want.

When I write, I want to find myself smiling or laughing as I write comedy.  I want to feel my pulse racing as I write an intense action sequence. I want to feel tears in my eyes if I’m writing an emotionally heavy scene.  I want to feel something, because if I don’t, how can I expect my readers to feel anything?

There a lots of these moments in my novel, The Field.  Moments where I would be in the middle of typing and get so emotionally invested that I would have to walk a lap around my apartment, collect myself, then come back to the keyboard.  There were sequences where that’s all I wrote that day because it was too intense for me to keep writing after I had hit the final period. 

These are the moments in in your writing that matter.  The ones that give your reader a visceral reaction to what they are reading or seeing on the stage or screen.  You have the power through your words to give the reader or viewer what they deserve: a rollercoaster ride of emotions and feelings.

It all starts with you.

If you’re not laughing at the jokes you’re writing, then an audience will likely react the same way. If you write an action-packed sequence and you don’t have any adrenaline pumping through you as you write it, the reader or audience may yawn their way through.  Because if you don’t care, why should the audience?

Another way to check the effectiveness of injecting emotion into your writing is to go back to a sequence you wrote long ago and see if it triggers similar feelings inside from the first time you wrote it.  If it does, then you have created an emotionally impactful scene, sequence, or chapter. And hopefully those emotional beats will resonate with readers as they experience your story.

Remember, creative writing is not an essay or an instruction manual.  It should be an emotional experience for the reader that starts with you, the writer.