Writing Tip of the Week:  Upping the Stakes

Whether it’s a Marvel movie or a Hallmark Channel movie, stakes for your protagonist and what they mean for the story matter. Your main character needs to have a goal, have a plan, and for there to be dire consequences for the main character if the goal isn’t achieved. This is where stakes come into play; making sure your hero – and the reader/viewer – know that what they are about to work toward won’t be a cakewalk.

Let’s talk about stakes!

Stakes in Perspective

What’s at stake in your story? Will the world be destroyed if the main character doesn’t win the day? Will grandpa lose his rose garden to evil developers if $50,000 isn’t raised in a week? It’s crucial to look at what’s at stake in your story to make sure they are realistic and proportional to the world you have created.  

Whatever the level of stakes, they should be a logical extension of the world you have introduced to the audience. If we are in a small town and you plan to tell a story that revolves around the small town, then the stakes should be things that could threaten the stability of someone’s world in a small town.  

If you’re doing a larger-scale story, the stakes for the main character could have statewide, nationwide, or global implications.  

Take the time to examine the stakes in your story and if they fit the overall narrative arc.

What is the Goal or Objective?

The inciting incident of a story rips the main character out of their calm, ordinary existence. It sets them on a new course toward a goal that hopefully will bring peace and a return to a possibly better status quo.  

So, what is that goal or objective for your protagonist? What do they want to accomplish, need to achieve, need to stop, need to conquer?  

What’s the Opposition?

The opposing force to the main character’s goal should be seemingly insurmountable and a definite problem that the hero must face and overcome. There needs to be a reason why the main character can’t just make a quick phone call, drive to a location, get a loan, pay the back taxes, or some other easy-to-solve problem.

Opposition must make the protagonist’s life harder, and ignoring it or running away from it will only make things worse for them or those around them.  

While a Thanos or James Bond-level supervillain may be too big in your story, there are other types of antagonists in real life that can make your character’s life and their desire to achieve their goals harder and more frustrating.

Who or what is the opposing force in your story? Is it strong enough to cause hardship and struggle for your main character?  

Inactions Have Consequences

What does the hero lose if the main character doesn’t take on the needed goal or objective? Do the consequences of their failure have a ripple effect that harms others in their life?  

While most of us avoid conflict and opposition, your main character cannot. The protagonist is an active participant in the story and must act upon their impulses to solve the problem set before them, even reluctantly.

This is where the question of What’s at stake?  comes into play. If Thanos gets all the Infinity Stones and snaps his fingers, half the universe’s population turns to dust. If grandpa loses his rose garden, he’ll be homeless or thrown in jail.  

These possible outcomes motivate and drive the main character forward toward defeating the opposition and achieving their goal.

Life or Death: Literal vs Figurative

The stakes should be big enough that if the main character fails, bad things will happen. This doesn’t have to mean millions will die. This can be a figurative life or death struggle for your main character, resulting in them achieving a goal that others doubted. To them, it’s personal and internal, not external, but the idea of them failing must feel like the end of the world.

If Elle Woods in Legally Blonde doesn’t graduate law school and become a lawyer, the world won’t end; but in her mind, it does. Again, it’s a matter of stakes perspective within the world of your story. Elle has something to prove to herself and those around her. She has a goal; she has opposition. If she doesn’t reach her goal, she will look foolish to herself, to those around her, and she’ll be – as she says in the film – “a joke.”  

On the other side of the stakes spectrum, if Eggsy in Kingsman: The Secret Service doesn’t stop Valentine from activating his free SIM cards in phones worldwide that cause people to violently attack and kill each other, millions could die.  

Both are life and death stakes for their respective main characters, but Elle’s are figurative, while Eggsy’s are quite literal.

What happens to your main character or their world if the stakes aren’t overcome? Will they alone suffer the consequences, or will others as well? Will people literally die, or are the deaths more internal and personal?

Many Roads

We are storytellers. Storytellers have a powerful gift to create and invent worlds, characters, stories, and stakes. Along with that power comes our ability to change things, add, subtract, multiply, and even divide stakes and consequences for our main characters.

As you work on your story, think about other possible stakes and challenges your main character could face. Don’t limit yourself, just see where your imagination and creativity take you. Too often we can become confined in a box of possibilities that can be very limiting when making the best creative choices for our story.

The sky’s the limit here. In the end, you’ll want to then go over the list and find the stakes that a) fit your story, and b) are big enough to seem impossible to achieve, and use those in your story.  

Have fun with this. Whatever the stakes are should be big enough, dire enough, and challenging enough to motivate and drive your protagonist forward in their pursuit of their goal and the defeat of their opposition.

Don’t Make It Easy

Never give the hero an easy out. There must be a clear reason why these stakes must be confronted, and the goal must be achieved. It has to be tough, and there have to be setbacks, doubts, frustrations, and thoughts of giving up.  

But a hero never does.

In the battle against Thanos in Avengers: Endgame, all hope seems lost as Thor, Iron Man, and Captain America are pummeled mercilessly by Thanos. But even with his shield shattered, his face bloodied, and his uniform ripped apart, Captain America tightens his shield around his arm and stands back up to face his seemingly unbeatable foe.

The stakes of not fighting back are too high.

This leads me to my final point…

Make Us Root for the Protagonist

Audiences want to see or read a good story, and they are looking for a strong main character to follow and root for. Most of the time, we know that the main character will win by the end of the story, but we are there for the ride.

The trials and tribulations, wins and losses, ups and downs. We are present and committed to seeing how the protagonist faces the stakes before them.

Our job as writers is to create a main character that the audience will root for throughout the story. This is why it’s important to craft a narrative that isn’t easy for the hero to traverse; the stakes have to feel like they might just be big enough to take down our main character.

Have you ever been in a full movie theater where everyone is so focused on what’s happening on-screen you could hear a pin drop? Or stayed up way too late to finish a book because you had to see what happened next? Substantial stakes lead to these moments. They are an essential tool that writers need to use to create strong, effective stories that suck people in and make them want the hero to succeed.

Final Thoughts…

This week, take some time to look over your story’s outline or your latest draft. What are the stakes for your main character? Are they big enough? Strong enough? What impact will these stakes have on your main character or those around them if they aren’t overcome? Are your main character’s goals and the opposition to their goals clear?

Happy Writing, and I’ll see you next time!

Writing Tip of the Week: Purposeful characters

No matter what type of fiction you’re writing, characters are essential to the story.  They engage the reader, generating empathy, sympathy, and connection.  Your characters must serve a purpose within the framework of your story’s world.

As writers, it takes time to craft, shape, and mold our protagonist, antagonist, and other characters into the overall story arc that we have created.  We shouldn’t be wasting creative energy creating superfluous characters who have no reason to be in the story.  

Here are some tips to help you eliminate aimless and purposeless characters from your story.

Take Inventory

Who’s who, and why are they there?  If you are in the beginning stages of writing your story, take time to establish your main characters, secondary characters, and background characters on a spreadsheet or piece of paper.  Do they serve an essential function in the story?

If you have already written your story, take inventory of your characters as you read through.  Do they all serve a purpose?  Is there anyone that doesn’t belong or isn’t really essential to the story?

By creating a spreadsheet, you can list who the characters are, their role, and how they tie into the story.  If you find characters that serve no critical function or role, you may want to cut them because…

More Characters = More Problems

Taking on an ambitious fiction project can be exciting.  Still, you also have to make sure that everyone you introduce has a reason for existing and serves an essential role in your story.  The more characters you bring into the mix, the harder it can be to keep track and keep things focused.

Limiting the number of characters can help keep the story and its conflict focused, so you don’t get lost in the weeds, which reminds me…

Where’s the Focus?

Your story has a main storyline with a protagonist working toward a goal amidst numerous obstacles.  That should be your primary focus as you write.  Find yourself deviating too much into subplots and side quests with other characters?  It may be time to either rethink the protagonist or move those other characters into their own story.

If the subplots tie directly back to the main character and their story, that’s fine.  But if you do notice that what they’re doing has zero impact on the main narrative, it’s time to cut it.

Superfluous Characters

Are there characters you’ve created that don’t really go anywhere or serve any real purpose within the story?  Maybe you wrote an elaborate backstory for a Starbucks barista that the main character encounters on their journey.  But, if they are in one chapter and never seen or mentioned again, you may want to trim out how they saved their grandma and her cat from a space heater fire in the fifth grade. 

However, if the barista’s backstory serves a key role in the story later on, and the character comes back to help save the day, they serve a purpose.  Just make sure that if you put in the time to provide lots of detail on a specific character, the reader has a reason to be given that information.

Elevate or Eliminate?

If your creative mind has crafted a complex side character who initially has no real purpose in the overall story, you have a few options:  

  • You can cut them out of this story and move them to one where they can play a more significant role.  
  • You can elevate them and combine their character and attributes with a less-than-stellar secondary character who may need some extra life.  
  • Or you can see how this character’s current role can be elevated through further interactions with the protagonist and the main story.

There are ways to make it work, but the character can’t detract or deviate from the main story.

Should My Protagonist Have a Pet?

I’ve seen this brought up before, and it’s an interesting question.  The answer is simple: only if you are willing to have the main character’s dog or cat be a part of the story.  You can’t just introduce the reader to the protagonist’s dog in one chapter and never mention them again.  Once you commit to your main character being a pet owner, you have chosen to keep that pet as a part of the story.

So, if your main character travels the world on quests, it’s probably best to keep the pets out of things. Otherwise, readers may wonder, “Who’s watching Rex?  Is the dog okay?  I know cats are independent, but she’s been gone for three weeks!”  

Read, Read, Read

Skim through novels and see how different authors set up and establish their various characters.  Some will be more detailed than others, but the key to this research is to identify how main characters, secondary characters, and others are described throughout the story.  

Whether you’re writing a short story or short film, a novel or a screenplay, knowing who your characters are and their purpose is essential to keeping the story moving and the reader or viewer engaged.

Happy Writing, and I’ll see you in two weeks!

Writing Tip of the Week: The Importance of Conflict in Your Story

Most of us go about our daily lives determined to avoid conflict.  In the real world, it can be a real pain dealing with angry, disagreeable, and aggressive people, which can, in turn, negatively impact your day as a whole.  If we find ourselves involved in a conflict, our primary goal is to end it or get away from it as fast as possible.

Obviously, there are those in the world that thrive on conflict and cause trouble for others, but for the most part, people like to have a semblance of peace in their day-to-day lives.

I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase, Conflict equals Drama, and it’s true. Conflict is a must-have in the fictional world of a novel, a TV show, or a movie.  Conflict helps drive the story forward, reveal character, and create an intense dialogue between those in conflict. 

Suppose a story lacks a conflict for your protagonist. In that case, it can drag, feel aimless, and even cause the reader or viewer to lose interest.  So, let’s talk about conflict and how to keep things alive in your story.

How Big Should the Conflict Be?

Not all conflict revolves around world-ending superhero movie stakes.  A conflict can be as simple as a disagreement between the main character and another character.  It can also be during the final showdown between the protagonist and antagonist.  It’s something that puts a wrench in the protagonist’s day, and it’s something they have to work to overcome to get to their sense of normalcy once again.

Let’s look at story conflict on a scale of 1 to 5.  One is the bare minimum.  Maybe it’s a couple who can’t agree where to go to dinner or siblings who can’t decide whether to get a cat or a dog.  Simple, low-stakes conflicts that will probably have an amicable resolution sooner than later.  

A five is a relentless assault on the main character that has no clear end in sight, and the antagonist has the upper hand from the start.  Horror movies are often a 10.  Superhero movies can be up in the 10s.  Disaster movies as well.  High-stakes and a lot to lose if the main character is defeated.

In the middle are stakes and conflicts that can mirror real life, raise stakes, and create consequences for the main character. They aren’t easy to resolve but have some kernel of hope of a win nesting inside them.  

Think about what you’re currently writing.  What are the main conflicts the protagonist faces?  Are they Ones?  Fives?  In the middle?  Then ask yourself if the conflict is big enough for your main character to fight to defeat whatever the conflict is.  Will the struggle?  Will they suffer in some way?  Have setbacks?  Will these conflicts help them grow as a character?

Don’t Fear Conflict

It’s okay for your main character to argue with someone.  It’s okay for the protagonist to disagree with other characters.  If your protagonist gets their way from chapter one to the final page, it’s going to be a dull and predictable story. 

Hallmark movies have conflict.  As you read this, Hallmark Channel has started airing Christmas movies 24/7. Never seen one?  Watch one and jot down the main conflicts that the main character faces throughout the story.  On our scale, they are probably 1s and 2s (if you want 3-level conflict, flip over to Lifetime), but there is still conflict present.

When we hear the word Conflict, we think of shootouts, explosions, fistfights, and screaming matches.  But conflict can take many forms rooted in a more realistic world than Batman versus The Joker.  

Sitcoms can create a conflict out of a minor situation and expand upon it for 22 minutes.  One of my favorite shows, Frasier, does this beautifully.  From minor disagreements, misunderstandings, past rivalries, and more, these smaller conflicts can be a well-spring of material that can be used that don’t have to result in Metropolis or Gotham City being destroyed.

And just because your main character argues with someone doesn’t make them unlikeable.  It makes them appear more human, which is a good thing.

External & Internal Conflict

What’s causing the conflict in the story?  If it’s something outside the main character’s control, it’s an External Conflict.  It disrupts the protagonist’s world that has to be resolved to return to their sense of normalcy.

Most stories revolve around External Conflicts. There’s a threat, a natural disaster, an antagonist creating chaos.  Whatever it is, it’s outside the main character.

Internal Conflicts can be a direct result of an External Conflict. Still, these are things the main character is struggling to overcome that are causing issues within.  

Maybe they were just served divorce papers.  The divorce is an External Conflict, but the feelings the main character has are an Internal Conflict.  The protagonist must resolve the External Conflict (why does the partner want a divorce?  Where are they?  How can we fix this problem?).  At the same time, they must deal with the Internal Conflict (what did I do to lead up to this moment?  How can I change and become better?  Is there something wrong with me as a partner?).

All characters, like real people, need to have an External and Internal life, which assists in creating the External and Internal Conflicts that serve the story and help the character grow and change within and without.

As you work on your story, think about how the external events are affecting the main character internally.  How are their thoughts, feelings, and fears impacting their ability to stop the External Conflict they’ve been thrown into?

Conflict as a Driving Force

Conflict creates problems for the protagonist.  In turn, the active protagonist sets out to resolve and end the conflict.  Other conflicts may pop up in the meantime that must be tamped down as the main character continues their pursuit toward their goal of ending the conflict.

The majority of main characters in mainstream entertainment want to end the conflict they’re dealing with and go back to their life before everything got out of control.  Of course, in working to stop and resolve the conflict, they will grow as a person and learn from their experiences, which creates their Character Arc.

Viewing for Conflict

Grab a couple of your favorite movies, a few episodes of your favorite TV shows, a novel you’ve read before, a notebook and a pen, and analyze the conflicts in each. Make a note about the main conflict, how the main character sets out to resolve it, and how they evolve throughout the story to end the conflict.  

Now, look at your story and see where conflict can be increased and the stakes raised for your main character.  What is your protagonist’s goal?  How do they initially plan to resolve the conflict that has presented itself and upturned their calm state of being?  How will they change as they work to resolve the conflict?  Will they become a better or worse person by the story’s end?

Happy Writing, and I’ll see you in two weeks!

Writing Tip of the Week: Story Structure – The End

In today’s post, we’ve made it to that all-important piece of the puzzle that helps tie everything up in a nice, neat bow: The End of the story.

The Final Test

Your hero has been dealt a decisive blow as they enter the arena of the End.  As they come out of the big Turning Point that jettisons them from the Middle, they may be ready to give up, give in, or just walk away. 

But that can’t happen.  If you’ve created an active protagonist, they aren’t going to go down without a fight.  They’re going to give everything they have left to get to their goal, even if it kills them.

And that’s why…

Cop-Outs are NOT an Option

The main character may feel a sense of impending doom at this point.  They may feel they have no options or choices left.  They may feel they are all alone.  But they can’t give up. They can’t just decide, “You know what?  You were right, Joker.  Gotham is yours.”  

It’s not in a protagonist’s nature to stop while there’s still hope of winning and reaching their intended goal.  This is still their fight, and even if they come out of it bruised, bloodied, and worse for wear, they will still have evolved as a character by the story’s end.

Win, Lose, or Draw

Ultimately, you get to decide what your hero’s fate is.  They have three viable options:

  • They can fight and win;
  • They can fight and lose; or
  • They can fight and decide along with the antagonist to settle their differences in a civilized manner.

This is the Climax of the story; the final battle between the forces of good and the forces of evil.  Or the forces of “I want to be a writer” and the forces of “no, you’re gonna work on the family farm.”

Most superhero and action movies choose the Win (The AvengersThe Dark KnightHobbs & Shaw).  Many dramas may opt for the hero to Lose, but still win in some respect (GladiatorDallas Buyers ClubAmerican Beauty).  But what about rom-coms or comedies?

These usually end in a Draw; where the hero wins, but their antagonist now supports them and wants them to succeed.  Maybe they end up with the antagonist by the end of the story (You’ve Got Mail).  Maybe their father decides that they shouldn’t be a coal miner and should design rockets instead (October Sky).

Often, we think in terms of “the antagonist must be destroyed,” but if you are writing something about real people, a family, a team, this probably won’t work.  Think about how the hero’s actions can persuade the antagonist to their side plausibly and positively. 

Bringing Everyone to the New Normal

Once the antagonist has been defeated and the hero has reached their goal, a New Normal has been achieved.  They have what they were seeking – a job, a significant other, an education, the Holy Grail, etc. – and their life will never be the same.

Take the time to acknowledge this new status, even if for a brief moment.  This is the point in the story when things are starting to wrap up.  The adventure is over.  Don’t drag your feet and make the audience stick around once their investment has paid off.  Make sure they know what happened after the final showdown and how the characters are doing after, but make it brief.

The technical term for this moment of the story is Denouement

The End of Legally Blonde

As we discussed two weeks ago, Elle found herself in a bad place with her professor sexually harassing her and her new friend Vivian witnessing the harassment.  But, instead of being on Elle’s side, Vivian accuses her of sleeping with the professor to get the internship.

Now, Elle is ready to quit law school, give up on her goal, and hide.  But, after a pep talk from one of her female professors (played by Holland Taylor), she decides that quitting is not an option.

Check out the clip here:

Elle returns to the trial, regains her confidence, and its through her cross-examination of the accused that the prosecution wins the case.  

Check out the clip here:

As she goes to leave, her ex, Warner, tries to get back with her.  She rebuffs him with a similar line he used to break up with her, and walks away.

Check out the clip here:

The final scene is of Elle giving an uplifting speech on graduation day.

Check out the clip here:

She did it!  She proved to herself and to others that she was capable of becoming a lawyer.  

Notice that the Climax in this film is a verbal exchange between the hero and villain.  No epic battle that destroys half of Harvard.  It’s simple yet effective.  Elle has evolved as a person who has realized her own value and self-worth.  And her final line to Warner and her graduation speech sum up how she has evolved throughout the film.

It’s been quite a journey over the past five posts.  We’ve explored all aspects of the Beginning, Middle, and End of a story.  We’ve looked at Legally Blonde and seen how that story is crafted with these story elements in mind.  And next time, I’ll share some final thoughts about story structure to wrap up this series.

Happy writing, and I’ll see you in two weeks!

Writing Tip of the Week: Story Structure – The Middle, Part One

Over the past two articles, we discussed what goes into creating the opening of your story.

Today, we’ll start to look at the Middle of the story.  You can call it Act Two or even as some writers call it: The Muddle.  This is where your hero’s path toward their goal should become increasingly challenging, where they begin to grow and change as a character, and the story continues to create conflicts for the main character.

The Stage Is Set

The Who, What, Where, When, and Why have all been established and your main character and their helpers have been launched from their ordinary existence into a new and challenging adventure.  Your main character has a stated goal, and forces prevent them from quickly achieving what they want.

Once they cross over the threshold of Turning Point One, they have no entered a new phase of their journey. They may have to reassess how they are going about achieving their goal.  They may realize that they can’t do things on their own and need some help.  Maybe the antagonist has taken this moment to up the stakes just a little more, which only motivates the hero to keep going despite the odds.  

At this point, you as a writer should know your main character fairly well.  What they are willing to do and not do.  How far they will go to get what they want.  What decisions they will make – good or bad – that will impact them reaching their goal.  

And The Hits Keep on Comin’

Obstacles.  Lots of obstacles.  The Middle of the story needs to present challenges and problems that make the hero challenge who they are and make them work to reach their goal.  Think of this section of the story as the main obstacle course for your characters.  They have to do things that they may not want to do, may not like, and may have to go outside their comfort zone to get to the next level to get one step closer to their goal.

Reality shows like American Ninja WarriorWipeout, and Holey Moley are examples of individuals having to traverse seemingly impossible odds to reach the intended goal and get the prize.  Essentially, you are sending your characters through a similar maze filled with hazards, hits, and dangers that they must overcome in one way or another.

It’s okay for them to fail and have setbacks.  In fact, that makes your hero more human if they don’t always get what they need or want on the first try.  Creating a flawed character who doesn’t give up creates empathy and relatability between the character and the audience.  

Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes

The Middle is where the bulk of the character arc takes place, mainly since it’s also where the bulk of the story happens.  Your main character started out one way when we first met them at the beginning of the story, but now as they face new odds and problems, we should begin to see them develop and grow.  

A stagnant and unchanging character lacks relatability.  If your character experiences some traumatic event that launches them into the story and has zero effect on them, it’s hard to relate to that character.  Now, suppose they are repressing their anger, sadness, or despair, affecting their judgment and ability to problem-solve.  This creates an internal conflict that will eventually manifest itself since they will have to overcome those things in order to reach their goal by the end of the story.

Think of Mando’s arc in season one of The Mandalorian.  How does he change when he meets and interacts with The Child for the first time?  What choices does he make that affect his character arc throughout the season?  How do his choices and changes affect the story?

Think about how the events in Jurassic Park affect Alan Grant’s relationships with and views on children.  How do his interactions and perspectives change from the start of the film to the finale?

Keep Things in Motion

A story should be in constant motion.  Each scene or chapter leading into the next.  The protagonist should always be doing something.  They should always be active in what’s going on.  It is their story, after all.

As you develop the Middle, think about how to map out the story so events keep moving forward.  That goal is still out there.  The antagonist still exists to prevent the protagonist from reaching their goal.  How can you keep your hero moving toward their goal while hitting them with problems that prevent them from reaching it?

Each scene or chapter should give the audience a new piece of the puzzle.  Some new information that keeps them reading or watching.  The hero is handed a note and reads it.  What does it say?  We don’t find out until several chapters or scenes later, but our curiosity has been piqued.  

Keep the audience interested, and they’ll stay to find out what happens next.

Staying Focused

During this time in the story, it can be easy to slowly go off course and get knee-deep in subplots or tangents.  And while subplots are acceptable, it’s important not to lose sight of the real reason we’re in this story: to watch the hero go after their goal in the face of opposition.

Work through their story first.  If you want to go back and add a subplot that ties into the main story afterward, go for it.  Your main goal here is to develop the main character’s arc and their related story arc.  It can be very tempting to go and take a detour with the main character’s best friend and see what shenanigans they’ll get themselves into.  But unless that directly impacts the main story, hold off and see if that side trip is really necessary.

Think about movies you’ve seen where subplots pop up and then go nowhere, or they have no relation to the main story and just seem to be there to eat away screen time.  Avoid these types of subplots and make sure that all roads point back to the hero.

In The Middle of Things

As I said before, the Middle is the longest part of any story.  It can be almost an hour of what you see on the screen (and if it’s a long movie, even more).  At the halfway point, there’s something known as the Mid-Point Sequence.  The outcome affects what the hero does moving forward. 

This is a big moment for the hero. After everything they’ve been through and worked through, things seem to be going their way for the most part.  They still haven’t reached their goal, but now they are getting a better idea of how to get there.

This is also known as The Point of No Return.  Once we get past the Mid-Point of the Middle, it’s now only a matter of time before the protagonist has to confront their antagonist head-on (literally or figuratively). 

In Legally Blonde, the Mid-Point of the Middle comes when Elle gets chosen Callahan’s law internship.  This is a big moment for Elle since she has been working to prove herself a viable Harvard law school student and future lawyer.  Worth noting is that her antagonist, Warner, was also chosen along with his fiancée, Vivian (Selma Blair).  I mention Vivian since she is an extension of the antagonist, and therefore can cause problems and issues for Elle on his behalf.

The sequence then leads to Elle, Warner, and Vivian arriving at the internship and finding out about the case they will be assisting on.  

Elle is at the Point of No Return.  She can’t back out now, and she can’t allow herself to fail without a fight.  

Check out the clip below:

In two weeks, we’ll explore the second half of the Middle as we charge toward the End and the Climax of the story!  

Happy writing!

Check out the articles on The Beginning, here:

Writing Tip of the Week – Story Structure: The Beginning, Part One

Every story has a starting point, a place where the writer has decided to begin the story and launch the characters into an adventure that differs from the day-to-day normalcy of their lives.  Over the next few weeks, we’ll explore the different aspects of the Beginning, Middle, and End of a story and what components go into each.

Let’s get started.

Where Are We?  Location, Location, Location.

The opening chapter or scene sets the stage for what’s to come.  Give us the location, the time period, and the current circumstances.  Is this a contemporary story?  Are we in Victorian England?  In a galaxy far, far away?  Give the reader descriptors that help orient them into the world of the story.  Your characters occupy a specific space at a particular time.  The beginning is where to establish these things and make sure the reader has a clear understanding.

Read the first chapter of a few novels and see how those authors establish location and time while also moving the story forward.

Who Are We With? Who’s the Story About?

Whose journey are we following?  Knowing your main character and who they are before the Inciting Incident is a key factor to ensure you know how they will react and actively pursue their goals when the new events begin to unfold.  What’s their name?  Their profession?  What relationships do they have?  What conflicts do they have in their lives?  What’s their personality?  

In his book, The Story Solution, Eric Edson lays out nine “personality traits and story circumstances that create character sympathy for an audience” (Edson 14).  These don’t all have to be used, but they are a great way to help your reader/viewer connect with your main character at the beginning of your story:

•          Courage – “brave people take action, and only action can drive the plot forward.” (15)

•          An Unfair Injury – placing your “character in a situation where blatant injustice is inflicted upon her…[it] puts the hero in a position where [they’re] compelled to DO something, take action in order to right a wrong.” (16-17)

•          Skill – “It doesn’t matter what your hero’s field of endeavor might be as long as [they’re] an expert at it.” (17)

•          Funny – “if you can bestow upon your hero a robust and playful sense of humor, do it.” (19)

•          Just Plain Nice – “We can easily care about kind, decent, helpful, honest folks, and we admire people who treat others well.” (19)

•          In Danger – “If when we first meet the hero [they’re] already in a situation of real danger, it grabs out attention right away.” (20)

•          Loved by Friends and Family – If we see that “the hero is already loved by other people, it gives us immediate permission to care about them, too.” (21)

•          Hard Working – “People who work hard have create the rising energy to drive a story forward.” (21)

•          Obsessed – “Obsession keeps brave, skilled, hard-working heroes focused on a single goal, which is enormously important to any story.” (21)

These are just a few points from the book, which I highly recommend. You can pick up a copy at the link below:

Active or Passive Protagonist?

In modern commercial fiction, the protagonist is almost always active.  This means that when things happen, they react and actively pursue a goal.  Mando in The Mandalorian is actively working to keep Grogu (aka Baby Yoda) safe from those who wish to harm him.  Mando’s inciting incident was meeting Grogu; he now has an active goal to protect him.  His actions move the story in a new direction.

Katniss in The Hunger Games actively volunteers her life to save her sister’s during the Hunger Games lottery.  She is actively involved in the decision that launches the story in a new direction.

A passive protagonist just allows things to happen around them, or they don’t do enough to try and fix what’s happening.  Even in disaster movies where the elements are out of the hero’s hands, they still are active in their attempts to save their own lives and the lives of others.  When you watch TwisterDante’s PeakSan Andreas, or Volcano, notice that while what’s happening is out of the main characters’ control, they are still actively pursuing a goal: survival.

What actions can your protagonist take to try and resolve their newfound issues?  What is their active goal, and what steps will they take to reach it?  They can try and fail, but they should be active in their attempts.

Is It Really “The Beginning”?

A story begins at a point that shows the reader/viewer the protagonist in their normal element.  We, as an audience, have to assume that this character existed before this story. We are about to see a series of events markedly different and far more interesting than a typical day in their life. 

You want to give your readers a glimpse of this world before things begin to change and move the protagonist into a new direction that they didn’t see coming.  We need to know who they are before this story starts so we can witness how the events of the story impact and change their lives by the end.

A character’s story is on a continuum.  What we are writing about and what the reader/viewer is experiencing is something out of the ordinary.  Steve Rogers (Captain America: The First Avenger), Elle Woods (Legally Blonde), and Mando (The Mandalorian) all were just doing their normal thing until a new set of circumstances took them to a new level of existence, which is…

What Starts the Journey? The Inciting Incident.

Things are pretty normal for your main character.  They’re just living their life as always when suddenly…something big happens to alter their life for the better or worse.  This is the Inciting Incident, the moment where the protagonist has to begin making choices that will launch them and us into a new storyline apart from what they are familiar with.

Your main character could be all set to go into the boss’s office to get a promotion and get fired instead.  Your main character could find out something devastating about their family that requires them to act and discover the truth.  It can be anything that jolts the main character out of their normal life and takes them on a new path.

Brainstorm some ways a character’s ordinary world can suddenly change and how your character would react to new information and their potential paths forward.

Homework

Now that you have the basics about the Beginning of a story, watch the first 15 minutes of a few movies or read the first few chapters of some novels and see how events, characters, and Inciting Incidents are introduced.  How does the main character react when something new happens?  What’s the first thing they do?  How do their actions at that moment propel the story forward?  What traits from Edson’s book are present in the main character when we first meet them?

Happy Writing, Reading and Viewing, and I’ll see you next week with more on story beginnings.

Don’t be Afraid to Give Your Protagonist Negative Traits and Flaws

I recently came across this clip of Daisy Ridley being interviewed about her character Rey in the latest Star Wars trilogy, and her perspective piqued my interest.  Have a look:

As a writer, I respectfully disagree with Ridley’s view on characters not needing flaws or faults and her perspective that Rey doesn’t have any.  Why are character flaws and negative traits important even in a protagonist?  Let’s talk about it.

Flaws and imperfections give a character depth and dimension.  They humanize the character and create empathy or sympathy between the reader/viewer and the character.  Flaws give the character something to overcome or cope with as they work through the narrative.  

Just like in real life, there are external events we have to deal with, and at the same time, we have to work through any internal issues we may be facing.  Sometimes the two can conflict, which can be frustrating in real life but makes excellent story material.

A perfect character is a BORING character.  You want your characters to feel relatable, and negative traits are a great way to do that.  This doesn’t mean they have to be evil or do illegal things.  There is a wide range of emotions, traits, and flaws you can give a character that will help your reader see them as a person and not just a vessel through which a story is being told.

Think of some of your own personal traits that might be seen as unfavorable or even your own flaws.  Do they make you a bad person?  Probably not.  How do you cope with them?  How do you work through them daily?  By incorporating internal struggles and flaws, you can add dimension to your characters. 

Think of your favorite film, TV series, or book characters.  Are they perfect?  Probably not.  Do they have flaws?  More than likely, a lot of them.  But even with these faults, flaws, and struggles, we identify with them, root for them, empathize with them and watch the character evolve as the story unfolds.

You know, that whole character arc thing.  Pretty important.

Daisy Ridley’s proclamation that Rey has no flaws starts with the writing.  If J.J. Abrams and Rian Johnson created a flawless character for Ridley to play, that’s an error in judgment on their part, not Ridley’s.  She’s merely performing what’s on the page and interpreting it based on what the director – and Disney – wants.  

Rey should have flaws, doubts, imperfections, and negative traits.  It doesn’t make her a bad person; it doesn’t make her less likable.  It HUMANIZES her, giving the audience someone to follow and root for.  

These issues enable the character to have an arc, to strive toward being better as they traverse the obstacles thrown at them by the story.  If you listen to the clip, Ridley lists several things that she feels people can overcome – “anger and jealousy” – and she’s right.  They can.  That’s called personal growth in real life.  Or a character arc in a story.  

Just like the characters in the original Star Wars trilogy.

If you look at the original trilogy, Luke, Leia, Han, and even Darth Vader all have negative traits and flaws, but they overcome them throughout the trilogy.  We watch, and we have a vested interest in who they are and what will happen to them.  Is it because they’re perfect, flawless humans?  Quite the opposite.

So, as you create characters for your stories, remember that it’s okay to have them possess negative traits and have flaws.  This gives them something to work on, something for the audience to identify with, and presents the reader/viewer with a dimensional character worth their time.

Apologies for the late post. I will be back to the earlier post time next Sunday!

Keeping Your Characters Off-Balance

Should your main characters ever feel comfortable?  Should they ever feel like everything is okay and their life is going just fine?  Of course, the answer to these questions – especially when dealing with fictional characters – is an emphatic NO.  Over the course of the story, it is your job as a writer to keep them as off-balance as possible.

In the real world, we often have a strong desire for balance and calm in our daily lives.  Too much stress or anxiety can take its toll on the human mind, body, and spirit, so we often escape to places where we can refresh and recharge.  With fictional characters, this sense of calm should be a constant struggle to obtain.  It not only can make them more in-depth as characters, it can also make for a better story.

The old adage is that Conflict = Drama.  And drama is what drives the story forward.  Like most writers, I tend to want to protect my main characters from harm.  But in doing so you do a great disservice to your characters and your readers.  Putting your characters in harm’s way, giving them impossible situations to get out of, and relentlessly giving them obstacles to overcome makes for a better story and can help strengthen and add dimension to your characters.

This is where the concept of the Character Arc comes into play.  Your characters should evolve and change over the course of the story, and keeping them off-balance and having to find ways to try and resolve their problems helps them grow as characters.  Don’t forget that your main character should go through some sort of change or metamorphosis over the course of the story.

Granted, you want to give the reader a sense of what is a normal day for your characters before the inciting incident turns their world upside down.  That’s fine.  It’s what Joseph Campbell refers to as The Ordinary World.  But once that Ordinary World is thrown off, it’s time to take your characters on a very bumpy ride. 

Your main character’s primary goal – aside from the goals your set forth for them once the story gets underway – is to return to their normal as fast as possible.  Don’t let them get there.  And even once the goal of the story has been achieved and their world seems to be back to normal, the journey they have taken over the course of the story has forever changed them ion some significant way.

They can never return to the Old Normal they had before the story began.  And that’s a good thing.  They have grown as a character.  They have overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles.  And they have come out the other side a stronger, more realized person because of their journey.

It is often during times of great stress or trauma that real people show their true colors.  It is your job as a writer to create these types of situations for your characters to keep them off-balance.  It doesn’t have to be a life-threatening event, but it should be something that will forever change them for the better…or worse.

What do you think?  Leave a comment and let me know.

Also check out my article: “Don’t Be Afraid to Rough-Up Your Protagonist.”

Make Every Character Count

When creating characters for a story, whether it’s a novel, short story, screenplay, play, etc., remember that every character you introduce must serve a purpose in the story.  It’s pointless and a waste of time for you and your audience to have to deal with characters that have no reason for existing within the context of the story being presented.

Yes, there are different types of characters in a story that serves a multitude of purposes.  But even Henchman #3 has a reason to be in the story. If he’s just there doing nothing and has no purpose in fighting the main character or helping to escalate the obstacles for the main character than they should be removed ASAP.

Your main character is surrounded by supporting characters.  Those characters exist to help the main character, to support the main character, to give exposition and context to the main character and their world. They, in essence, ground the main character in the reality of the story. 

The antagonist exists to upend the world of the main character, and the characters associated with them are there to cause chaos for the protagonist as well.  They serve a purpose in the story: to help drive the action and conflict of the narrative and create obstacles for the main character.

Utility characters are those that the main character interacts with that often help the main character in some basic way: a cab driver; a cop; a barista; a witness who heard something.  They help propel the story forward but they aren’t integral to the main character’s overall growth over the course of the narrative.  On TV shows, these are also usually the random characters that pop up in an episode only to be killed off so the main cast can stay in-tact.

If you are taking the time to create and write about a character, they must serve a purpose that serves the main character on their journey.  Don’t spend hours creating a random character who appears in one chapter who is fascinating and clever, only for them to never be seen again.  If this does happen when you’re writing, maybe save that character for another story or integrate them more into what you’ve written.

It’s okay to have crowd of people in a story, but don’t get too focused in on who they are as individuals unless the ones you select to describe more have a purpose later on.  For example, if you have a group of protesters, you can give us an idea of what they look like and what they are doing/protesting, but naming them and giving them backstories is only worth your time and the audience’s time if we will see those particular characters later.

The most important characters are your main character and the antagonist.  Everyone else exists to serve them or oppose them over the course of the story.

How do you make sure you are keeping your story focused and on track?  We’ll talk about that topic on Monday!

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.