The Protagonist Problem: why is the hero or heroine so often the least interesting character in the book?
Please welcome David Corbett, author of The Art of Character, with a guest post that explores common problems with protagonists in fiction writing.
Catch them in an unguarded moment and many writers will confess that villains and secondary characters are much easier to write than protagonists.
One sees the problem in not a few books, some famous. Why are so many heroes—from Gulliver to Candide to Oliver Twist—the blandest character in the story?
The Protagonist as Vessel of Virtue, or the Myth of the Likable Hero
One common problem is the protagonist who plods through the story glowing with virtue like a night-light—and generating just as little heat.
This is particularly the case when the opponent is driving the action, creating the circumstances compelling the protagonist to (merely) react.
Deprive the protagonist the right not just to defend himself but to go on the attack, and all you have is a noble victim—the heir to Everyman in medieval morality plays—perhaps the least interesting character known to humanity.
The inclination to confine protagonists in a cocoon of virtue often results from the fatuous demand that they be likable. It is true that in a novel you are asking the reader to spend a great deal of time with a character, and no one wants to spend hours with an annoying, wheedling, sniveling pisspot. But neither do readers want to waste their time with a boy scout’s shadow.
It is far more important that we be able to empathize with a character than that we like him—and empathy arises from a sense of shared humanity, warts and all, not virtue.
Comprehending the Stakes, Summoning the Will
Lackluster protagonists also often result from the writer’s failure to properly understand the stakes—what the character wants, why, and what he’s willing to risk to get it.
Whatever the protagonist wants, even if at first he doesn’t know what it is, he must come to want it with his whole body and soul, so that losing it will be tantamount to death. The stakes must at some point become palpable, real, and ultimate, so that the will is irrevocably and completely engaged.
Understanding the Interconnection Between the Outer Goal and the Inner Need
Whatever the hero is trying to achieve in the outer world—capture the murderer, win the beloved, return home—the goal and the effort to achieve it speak to some inner yearning, limitation, or flaw that the character often does not even recognize until the events within the story—specifically, the conflicts endured to achieve the outer goal—reveal it.
This relationship is the machine that creates the protagonist’s reservoir of will to prevail as the conflict intensifies and the stakes escalate—otherwise, at some point the protagonist will just say to heck with it.
When the Protagonist’s Struggle is Fundamentally Internal
In stories centered on the protagonist’s battle to overcome guilt, fear of intimacy (as in many modern love stories), addiction, or even madness, there may not be an opponent per se. The role of opponent is embodied in the protagonist.
To dramatize the conflict, it’s useful to see that a choice lies at the heart of the character’s problem.
In the classic 1968 film Midnight Cowboy, what Joe Buck wants is intimacy, but abandonment and betrayal have created a profound mistrust of others. And so he has assumed the role of hustler to protect himself from the pain he associates with desire and closeness.
Joe’s dilemma creates a choice: to open himself to pain or not. And each option of that choice is embodied in a character: If Joe chooses to remain closed to suffering and hold on to his hustler mask, he can spend his life with women such as the affluent Shirley, who would pay him for sex and even enjoy his company, but never be a true companion; or he can open himself to pain and loss to care for his dying friend, Ratso.
When the Protagonist Faces a Problem, an Enigma, or a Disaster Rather than an Opponent
This is similar to the foregoing problem, but here the protagonist faces neither an opponent nor an internal struggle but an intractable situation or problem.
It’s one of the oldest story forms in existence, and examples range from The Odyssey and Jude the Obscure to The Time Machine and The Metamorphosis, to name a scant few.
The problem the character faces is not just difficult but seemingly unsolvable—so unsolvable it’s easy for the writer to get stuck, spinning wheels in the sand of speculation. Or else the hero gets lost in the specifics of various episodic problems, battling “situational opponents,” all of which can make the story seem like “one damn thing after another.”
The solution lies again in seeing the question at the heart of the protagonist’s dilemma.
In Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, for example, the father grapples with how to retain human decency in the midst of a living nightmare.
It’s that question—Will my son and I remain recognizably human if we manage to survive this disaster?—that defines the conflict, not just the brutalized landscape or the cannibals and brigands who inhabit it.
The Protagonist Who Doesn’t Know or is Confused by What He Wants, or is Afraid to Want It
In truth, this is less a problem in conception than execution. A great many compelling characters begin their stories being unclear, confused, or fearful of what they want.
Michael Corleone in The Godfather begins the story by distancing himself from his family. But as the threat to his father, then the deaths of his brother Sonny and his Sicilian bride, make it clear that the family’s enemies intend to destroy everyone he loves, Michael transforms not just into a family loyalist but its leader.
The same can be said for Rick Blaine in Casablanca, Jake Gittes in Chinatown, and hundreds of others. In each case, the conflict of the story, by making the protagonist face repeated failure at achieving what he thinks he wants at the story’s outset, obliges the protagonist to reassess what he truly wants—even who he is.
When the Wrong Character Serves as Protagonist
In choosing which main character should serve as your protagonist, ask yourself who:
- responds most deliberately to the incident that changes the world as it exists when the story begins;
- feels the deepest impetus to action;
- has the most at stake in the story;
- arouses the deepest empathy in the reader or audience;
- serves as the focus of the story’s moral premise;
- changes the most profoundly within the story.
Whoever can shoulder the majority of those responsibilities deserves to be your hero—and reaching that decision wisely will often spare you many of the other problems addressed above.
About the Author: David Corbett’s latest book, The Art of Character is the ultimate guide to creating captivating characters. He is the author of four novels: Done for a Dime, Blood of Paradise (nominated for numerous awards, including the Edgar), and Do They Know I’m Running?
David’s short fiction and poetry have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies. He has taught online and in classroom settings and at numerous writing conferences across the US. For more information, visit davidcorbett.com.
Please welcome our guest, author Belo Cipriani, with a post about finding inspiration in an urban setting.
Most of my recent writing has happened in the city due to travel, teaching, and other time constraints.
When I told my students, they struggled to believe that I got the ideas for my essays and fiction from a metropolitan area. They assumed that I—like many writers they had met or read about—spent months at a cabin or retreat typing away in isolation.
Many talented writers and artists talk about isolating themselves in nature, and I myself have been fortunate to get writing residencies in some of the most beautiful regions of the world. It’s no wonder people think being out in the country is the purest way to inspire art. As a writer who is blind, I find spending time in nature can very constructive to writing: the sound of birds chirping, the scent of ancient trees, and the peaceful song of branches dancing in the wind always led to inspiration.
But getting a writing residency is very competitive, and many writers can’t afford to leave their daily lives for weeks or months to focus on their craft. For any writer who feels stunted because he can’t escape to a natural place, I’d like to tell you about urban inspiration.
Tapping Into Every Sense
We’re often told to look up at the sky or to a lavish garden for inspiration. Being in nature forces people to use their senses to absorb instead of analyze. The smells, colors, and animals that serve as muses trigger memories and help us conjure up other worlds.
When I lost my sight, the doctor told me our brains receive 80 percent of information through our eyes. The rest is distributed among the other four senses. In other words, vision is distracting.
I often asked my friends and family members to decode unfamiliar noises or scents and soon realized most people don’t know the smells, sounds, or the feel of their own cities.
Great writers can bring every sense into their story. The books I love the most are those that leave me with distinct scents, flavors, and sensations on my skin. Learning to describe urban places is just as important as writing about a forest or a lake. Although you may not have noticed, your city has a story to tell just as much as nature does, and learning to use your senses in an urban environment can become a powerful writing tool.
Connecting to Your Environment
I’m sure by now you’re wondering how to deploy this urban inspiration technique. Here are some tips to help you open your senses:
- Listen. Start by closing your eyes and learning the noises that make up the soundtrack on your street. Once you identify them, learn who or what makes them. If it’s a car, find out the make and model. Write the sound out in its onomatopoeia form, and start a list. You’ll be surprised how those sound words can come in handy when writing a memoir or fiction. Researching something you hear can also lead you to think of a new story.
- Feel and Smell. Take a walk. Get to know the physical feelings and scents of your city. Find out what the bus stops feel like and what they are made from. Figure out the smells on busy streets. Go into coffee shops, restaurants, or markets and investigate what ingredients are calling your nose.
- Notice Colors. Although I’m completely blind, I still notice colors. I have a machine that reads colors on objects in a robotic voice. I walk to places and scan things to get a reading. I get strangers on the street involved by asking for their feedback on a color. After asking three to five people the same question, I end up with a list of different ways to express the same shade of paint. Sometimes, I ask people what color their neighbors’ houses are, and I’m never surprised when they don’t know. Learn the color palette of your street. Learn the different shades of blue that make up the sky above your house and pay attention to the time of day.
- Get to Know People and Places. In researching my second book, I delved into my city for inspiration. I visited the car museum to get a feel for seats and steering wheels. I wanted to touch with my hands and feel how cars have evolved in the past 100 years. I went to a Buddhist temple to get a sense of the energy during chanting, and I met with a perfume maker to learn the vernacular of fragrances. Each place and person I experienced in my city helped inspire hours of writing. Your city has a wealth of people with different experiences and backgrounds, and many cities also have treasure troves of history and culture waiting to be discovered.
Nature works as a conduit for creativity because isolation helps people tap into all of their senses. Most people think the only way to produce art is by running away to some desolate place. The truth is that my inspiration comes from experiencing the world around me — whether I’m in the country or the city.
Opening your mind to experience the world in different ways is an integral part of writing. Until we fully learn to absorb and experience the world we live in, we’ll never be able to communicate or connect our readers to that world.
About the Author: Belo Miguel Cipriani is a freelance writer, speaker, and author of Blind: A Memoir. Belo was the keynote speaker for the 2011 Americans with Disabilities Act celebration in San Francisco and was a guest lecturer at both Yale University and the University of San Francisco.
If you haven’t picked up a copy of 101 Creative Writing Exercises yet, here’s your chance to get one for free.
From today through Wednesday, April 17, Goodreads is hosting a free giveaway of 101 Creative Writing Exercises.
Goodreads is a social media network for people who love to read. It’s a great way to share and discover books. You can create a list of books you want to read and rate and review books you’ve already read. Plus, there are plenty of special features for authors.
All you need to enter is a (free) Goodreads account. Once you’ve logged in, click “Enter to Win” below (after the jump) for your chance to win a copy of 101 Creative Writing Exercises. The contest is open to residents of the United States, Canada, Great Britain, and Australia.
Writing Around the Web
Since today’s post is so short, I thought it would be a good time to share a few guest posts I’ve written for other blogs in recent weeks:
The Creative Penn: Pinterest: A Visual Marketing Tool for Writers and Bloggers: Pinterest turned out to be a surprisingly viable marketing tool for me, both as a blogger and as an author. In this post, I share tips and strategies for using Pinterest to market books and blogs.
Fiction Notes: The Art of Using Literary Devices and Techniques: Find out how the study of literary devices and techniques will refine your writing.
Novel Publicity: 5 Classic Character Archetypes: Character archetypes are identifiable by their purpose to a story. Learn about five universal character archetypes and how they enrich a story.
I hope you’ll check out these posts and enter the contest to win a copy of my book. After that, I hope you’ll get back to writing!
Today is April 1st. All around the world, people will celebrate today with jokes and pranks. For us writers, April 1st marks a different celebration: a celebration of poetry.
National Poetry Month was established in 1996 by The Academy of American Poets as a way to draw attention to poetry. Today, a range of government agencies, leaders, educators, publishers, poets, and arts organizations participate in National Poetry Month.
Whether you read poetry, write poetry, or simply want to show your support to poets and the literary community, April is a great time to get involved.
There are many ways to participate, and we’ll get to those shortly. First, let’s find out what National Poetry Month is all about.
What is National Poetry Month?
The Academy of American Poets describes National Poetry Month as follows:
National Poetry Month is a month-long, national celebration of poetry established by the Academy of American Poets. The concept is to widen the attention of individuals and the media—to the art of poetry, to living poets, to our complex poetic heritage, and to poetry books and journals of wide aesthetic range and concern. We hope to increase the visibility and availability of poetry in popular culture while acknowledging and celebrating poetry’s ability to sustain itself in the many places where it is practiced and appreciated.
Let’s Honor Poetry!
There are countless ways you can honor and celebrate poetry throughout the month of April. The Academy of American Poets has suggested 30 ways to celebrate National Poetry Month. Here are a few more:
- Share a poem: send a poem to a loved one (or send one poem a day throughout the month). Write your own poem or share one of your favorites. You can also find poetry online and share it on your website or via social media.
- Speaking of social media, use it to promote poets, poetry, and National Poetry Month.
- Check out the poetry writing tag here at Writing Forward, where you’ll find several dozen posts filled with poetry prompts, exercises, resources, and tips.
Here at Writing Forward, we’ll be celebrating National Poetry month with a few new posts on poetry. I’ll also share poetry-related articles via all of our social media accounts throughout the month.
Poetry Writing Cafe
I’ve also set up a Tumblr account called Poetry Writing Cafe, where I’ll be sharing a poem a day in print, audio, and video formats. I’ll also post other poetry-related articles there throughout the month. Like any blog, you can follow Poetry Writing Cafe via RSS.
I hope you’ll join me in celebrating National Poetry Month. How will you honor poetry this April?
Please welcome author Stuart Horwitz with a guest post on writing flashbacks.
“Flashback” is a term that we are all familiar with, even if its definition has grown a little vague. We sense that a flashback is something that happened before… but happened before what? Where we are now?
In other words, what are we flashing back from? This is where I think it is useful to introduce a companion term to flashback, the reading present. The reading present is the main narrative throughline, the most commonly visited time period, the one whose beginning and end most closely mirrors the beginning and end of the book as a whole.
There are good reasons to leave the reading present: by flashing back we can deepen characterization, create suspense, or introduce other characters and events that will eventually matter a great deal to our outcome. But there are also bad reasons to use flashback, not morally bad reasons of course, just whoops-I-painted-myself-in-a-wicked-corner bad reasons.
To assist with this quandary, I offer the following five rules of writing flashbacks:
- The first rule of flashback is just that, when we flash back, we do so for a reason. And — get this — we reveal this reason to the reader. This reveal can be subtle, but readers need to be able to make some kind of connection to why we just went there or they will feel lost.
- We don’t leave the reading present for so long that readers loses their bearings upon our return. In other words, don’t fall in love with another time period and dally there, favoring it over the reading present. The reader will wonder if that is when your story really takes place, and perhaps everything else has been a flashforward, which gets confusing (see rule #5). Readers need exactly one reading present. However the narrative is framed, wherever it jumps around to, the reader’s expectation is that they will be returned to the reading present in which they feel most at home to find out what happened.
- We don’t flash back for too short a time, such as a few lines or a paragraph, which is really more like presenting a memory. It’s better to stay in the reading present in that case and recount the past events through a character’s thoughts. When we do flash back, it should be for an entire scene, with all the benefits that a scene brings: dynamic action, a change in the state of affairs, development of the theme. This doesn’t mean a flashback can be only one scene long; it can be longer provided readers aren’t lost upon their return (see rule #2).
- If you are going to use multiple timelines, present each timeline chronologically. Help a reader out: if we are flashing back from a throughline that takes place in 2002 to a throughline that takes place in 1993, at least have the events in 1993 take place sequentially: you know, June, 1993 in one flashback, July, 1993 in the next flashback, October 1993, etc. We need to feel the narrative driving forward at all times.
- Flashbacks work, but flash-forwards don’t usually work. Flashbacks work because they correspond with our psychology: when we have a problem, we think back to an earlier time when something else happened, then we figure something out about ourselves or our world (this is how therapy works, I think). Flash-forwards—jumping forward in narrative order—usually don’t work because the human psyche is not constructed that way. If someone asks about your past, you can discourse on it rather freely even though you might end up changing the subject. If someone asks about the future, all but the most reckless souls will admit they don’t know yet.
For a great example of the reading present (or the viewing present, in this case) and some fabulous use of flashbacks, watch the film Slumdog Millionaire. The reading present here is the quiz show, Who Wants to be a Millionaire? The main character, Jamal, answers each question successfully, much to the surprise of all involved, by flashing back to specific events in his past and coming back to the viewing present with the correct response. There is even a third timeline — a lot to ask of today’s movie-going public — of Jamal being interrogated by the police. But it works because each timeline in presented in chronological order.
When we talk about flashbacks, the reading present, chronologies, and multiple timelines, we are talking about the general category called order, right? And I say that if we’re talking about order… then we might as well have some!
About the Author: Stuart Horwitz is the author of Blueprint Your Bestseller. He’s the founder and principal of the editorial firm Book Architecture based in Boston, MA and Providence, RI. For over fifteen years, he has helped authors revise, polish and successfully publish their work. His clients have become New York Times bestsellers and have appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show, The Today Show and The Tonight Show. An award-winning poet and essayist, Stuart has taught writing at Grub Street of Boston and Brown University. He holds Masters degrees in Literary Aesthetics from NYU and East Asian Studies and Medieval Japanese Buddhism from Harvard.
It’s March 4th. Every year on this day, word-nerds, linguists, and writers honor National Grammar Day. The event is hosted by Mignon Fogerty, a.k.a. Grammar Girl.
In Grammar Girl’s own words, “Language is something to celebrate, and March 4 is the perfect day to do it. It’s not only a date, it’s an imperative: March forth on March 4 to speak well, write well, and help others do the same!”
So, how can we celebrate this day? What can we, as writers, do to further the cause of good grammar and improve our own writing by strengthening our grammar skills?
How to Celebrate National Grammar Day
- Download free grammar-day wallpapers for your computer desktop or pickup Puntu-icons, a free set of grammar-related icons that you can use on your website.
- Listen to the “Grammar Hall of Shame Playlist,” comprised of great songs with bad grammar. See if you can find at least one grammar mistake in each one.
- Use your blog or social media accounts to tell your friends and followers about National Grammar Day and to promote good grammar in general.
- If you’ve ever published or shared a piece of writing and later discovered an embarrassing typo, you’re not alone. Check out these funny typo stories.
- Educate yourself on the top ten grammar myths.
- Treat yourself to a style guide or grammar resource. I recommend Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing, The Elements of Style, or The Chicago Manual of Style as the three best starter resources for writers.
- Explore good and bad grammar around the word by perusing Grammar Girl’s Flickr stream.
- Commit yourself to a week of learning grammar with this calendar of daily grammar tips.
- Send a National Grammar Day e-card to “the language lover or worst language offender in your life.”
- Read through Writing Forward’s own grammar tips. Find out why you should learn good grammar and learn how to make good grammar part of your daily life.
Last but not least, enjoy this “March Forth” video and make sure you click through to YouTube so you can check the “About” tab (beneath the video) to get the lyrics.
Now, march forth and embrace good grammar everywhere!
Today’s guest post is by John Yeoman of The Writers’ Village.
Have you ever been scammed by a writing contest?
I run a short story competition at Writers’ Village, so I have an interest in asking. We attract around 1200 entries each year, and with total prize values of £1500 ($2400), we’re edging into the big league. So I get angry when I hear about contests that don’t play by the rules and give all story awards a bad name.
Here’s a recent example.
One of my contestants told me he was about to submit an entry to a contest that we’ll call GeeWhiz Stories (not its real name). The contest announced total prize values of £4000 ($6400). That’s top money! At a £10 ($17) entry fee, it would need to attract 400 entries just to cover its prizes. Yet with low page rank, its website couldn’t be getting much traffic. Nor did its name appear in the web’s top contest directories, like Ask About Writing, Places For Writers, or Compete Around The World. So how did it attract over 400 entries annually and fund its prizes?
It didn’t. GeeWhiz was a scam.
I ran a Google search for ”geewhiz scam” and the results were hair-raising. It seems contestants had to wait up to a year to get their prize money. Sometimes the check bounced. The contest demanded first publication rights for winning stories, yet it took six years to publish them. Was the anthology available on Amazon? Did it have an ISBN? No. It could only be bought at an obscure page on the GeeWhiz site.
GeeWhiz had been operating like that for seven years. How did its directors sleep at night? None of this points to deliberate fraud, of course, but it suggests incompetence on an epic scale. From the comments I read on writing forums, it seems GeeWhiz is not an isolated case.
To be sure, the vast majority of contests are honest. Many are staffed by hard-working, unpaid volunteers. However, standards in the writing-contest industry — and it is an industry — differ wildly.
Several of my contestants have been entering shady contests for years. I asked them to share their thoughts about where some contests go wrong, including the ethical ones. Here’s what I heard:
Seven Ways Writing Contests Get it Wrong
1. Contests typically hide their deadlines and entry instructions. To find them at the site is a game of finding a needle in a haystack.
2. Their rules are often so complex you need a PhD in law to interpret them. Only after you’ve sent them your cash and story do you realize entries are accepted only from green-haired Klingons who are willing to attend an award ceremony in Mordor. You tell them that, alas, you are not a Klingon. Do they send back your entry fee? No.
3. They fail to acknowledge your entry. Your self-addressed postcard is not returned. Nobody responds to your increasingly frantic emails. Have they received your entry? Who knows? Who cares? Obviously, they don’t.
4. You’re never told if your entry was unsuccessful. You have to work it out for yourself by studying the photos of the smug winners posing at the award ceremony in Mordor. Are you pictured? No. You conclude you didn’t win.
5. They demand that your entry be anonymous. Your name must be revealed only in the entry form and thereafter concealed by a reference number. Can’t they trust their judges to be impartial? If not, their judges are amateurs. Would you trust amateurs to assess your story?
6. ”No correspondence will be entered into.” Nor will they give contestants even minimal feedback on their entries, except occasionally upon payment of a large extra fee. Why? Is it because the judges have not read the stories and subsequent correspondence would reveal that?
7. The winning stories are not published at the contest site or elsewhere. True, there may be a good reason, having to do with first publication rights. But unless a reason is given, it suggests that the names of the winners were made up, all entries were round-binned, and the promised prize money was not distributed.
How to Spot a Writing Contest Scam
Here are some clues that will help you spot a writing contest scam:
- The promoter has no obvious credentials in literature, academia or business.
- You’ve never heard of the judges and cannot easily do an online background check on them. Worse, no judges are named.
- The text on the contest website shows evidence of illiteracy. If a contest cannot even place its apostrophes in the right places, it is not qualified to determine which stories deserve awards.
- The contest does not showcase the work of previous winners. Why not? Unless the contest has not been run before, the organizers should flaunt such proof of their credentials in order to encourage future entrants.
- If the winning stories are showcased, did they, in your opinion, deserve an award? If not, you might feel motivated to enter the contest because you think you could easily beat that standard. In fact, if the stories are terrible yet still won money, ask yourself this: did the organizers write the stories themselves? If so, did they ever hand out any cash prizes?
In other words, if a contest smells like a money-making scam, it probably is. There’s nothing wrong with running a contest to make a profit. How else can the prizes be funded and the overheads paid? But if a contest demands an entry fee, it should maintain professional standards.
About the author: Dr John Yeoman has 42 years experience as a commercial author, newspaper editor and one-time chairman of a major PR consultancy. He has published eight books of humor and judges the Writers’ Village story competition. Dr. Yeoman is not courting your entries but would welcome your comments. His free 14-part course in winning story contests for profit can be found at: http://www.writers-village.org/master-seminars.
Every year brings new readers and old friends to Writing Forward, and I am both honored and grateful to be a part of the wonderful online writing community.
Our readers (and fellow writers) have come a long way in the five years since I started this blog. Some of us have discovered the joy of writing for the first time and set out on a path to write as hobby or to pursue a professional career in writing. Some of us have launched blogs, gotten our work published, or self-published. We’ve worked to improve our writing and have reached out to connect with readers and the greater writing community.
I hope that writers all around the world will take some time at the end of the year to reflect on what we’ve each accomplished and to look ahead in considering our goals for the future, both as writers and as human beings. Read more
Too many authors write a book or other story, cross their fingers and hope that one day Hollywood might come calling. But in the words of the world’s most successful filmmaker, James Cameron, “hope is not a strategy.” Like it or not, if you want your story to be a movie, the first step is up to you. That first step is to make your story film-friendly, long before Hollywood ever sees it.
Oscar-nominated producer Michael Nozik has produced literally dozens of films, many of them adaptations, including Quiz Show, The Motorcycle Diaries, Syriana, Love in the Time of Cholera, and The Next Three Days. “One of the first things I ask, and I’m sure every other producer who looks at a piece of material asks,” he says, “is this: is this thing a movie, or is this not a movie? Sometimes I’ll look at source material and think, this could be great, but I have no idea how to make it work as a movie, the story’s just too difficult to translate.”
Your job, as author of the book or other source material, is to make your story easy to translate. There are certain things Hollywood looks for in source material, that many books simply don’t have. (For simplicity, I’ll use “book” throughout, but all of these points apply equally to other storytelling formats.) And while there’s not enough room in a blog post to cover all of them, I’ll touch on two of the most important: concept and structure…
First up is concept: you need a basic premise containing three things: the WHO, the GOAL, and the OBSTACLE. Who your story is about, what their goal is, and the nature of the obstacle that must be overcome if that goal is to be reached. Ideally you figure this out before you start writing, but if you’ve already completed the story, you can also distill the concept afterward.
Either way, the end result is called a “logline;” your story in ten seconds or less. If you think this can’t be done, think again. Here’s a logline I wrote for The Fugitive:
A fugitive doctor wrongly convicted of killing his wife struggles to prove his innocence while pursued by a relentless U.S. Marshal.
That covers the WHO (a fugitive doctor wrongly convicted of killing his wife), the GOAL (struggles to prove his innocence) and the OBSTACLE (a relentless U.S. Marshal), all in seven seconds. But why do you need this?
Two reasons: to make sure you have a cinematic concept in the first place and to be able to get concept across in the aforementioned ten seconds. Even screenwriters sometimes fail to realize the importance of this.
Terry Rossio is a screenwriting icon. His Pirates of the Caribbean, Zorro, Shrek, Aladdin, upcoming Lone Ranger and other adaptations have earned billions of dollars. One of his screenplays, Déjà Vu, sold for a record $5 million.
“Most aspiring screenwriters,” says Terry, “simply don’t spend enough time choosing their concept. It’s by far the most common mistake I see in spec scripts. The writer has lost the race right from the gate. Months—sometimes years—are lost trying to elevate a film idea that by its nature probably had no hope of ever becoming a movie.” The same is true of aspiring book authors. And if you want your book to be a movie, concept becomes doubly important.
Christopher Lockhart is the story editor at reigning Hollywood superagency WME (formerly William Morris Endeavor). “With hundreds of thousands of stories from new writers circulating around town,” he says, “there has to be some kind of vetting process. And concept is the quickest and easiest way to vet. If you don’t have representation or a solid recommendation, concept is the best way to catch someone’s attention—and in all cases, it’s helpful. Concept, concept, concept.”
In short, no one in Hollywood has time to read your story. Period. But—everyone in Hollywood reads loglines. When they find one that catches their attention, that’s when they ask to see a longer pitch, or the story itself. Then they’ll make time to read it.
(For more on this, see Building the Perfect Logline for Your Book, Screenplay, or Other Story.)
Despite occasional examples to the contrary, Hollywood wants good stories, well told. A good concept gets things off on the right foot, but it also needs to be well-executed throughout. And for Hollywood, a big part of that execution is structure.
Screenwriter/producer/director Jonathan Hensleigh’s credits include Armageddon and Die Hard 2 (an adaptation). “Any study of motion pictures and how they fare with the public over time,” he says, “reveals that there are certain aspects to script construction that need to be honored for a film to be commercial. For the most part; there are exceptions.
“The people who run studios are not stupid, and they know something about film and finance. They also know that a traditional three-act structure, with a beginning, middle, and end, is vastly more likely to be successful in the marketplace. Whereas something that, for example, just ends abruptly or is unresolved or unsatisfying is not going to be commercial. So those types of projects are rejected. I’ve heard it said that 90% of all commercially successful films are classically structured. But I’d say that percentage is too low.”
You want those 90% odds working for and not against you. If your story is already structured like a movie, it’s going to be that much easier for Hollywood to see it as a movie, instead of thinking, in producer Michael Nozik’s words, “the story’s just too difficult to translate.”
So—what is classical story structure? Boiled down to basics: three acts, with seven plot points. In proper story order, the plot points are: inciting incident, first act turn, midpoint, low point, second act turn, climax, and wrap-up. It sounds complicated and formulaic, but it’s not. Rather, it’s a recognition of patterns that have been used (consciously or otherwise) by storytellers for millennia. The following is a highly compressed explanation.
- The inciting incident is the event that throws a wrench into your main character’s everyday life, setting the story into motion.
- The first act turn is the point where your hero (as I’ll call the main character) realizes what it is he or she must do (the GOAL) and sets out to do it, taking action to reach that goal.
- The midpoint can be one of two things or both: a no-turning-back point for the hero, beyond which his actions cannot be undone—or the revelation (perhaps to the hero, perhaps only to the reader) of an as-yet-unsuspected element at work in the story.
- The low point is just that—the hero’s all-hope-is-lost moment, where he is as far as it seems possible to get from attaining the goal. If your hero were going to commit suicide, then this would be the place.
- Midpoint is followed closely by the second act turn—where the hero rebounds from the seeming defeat of the low point and implements a new plan to achieve his goal.
- The climax happens when the hero (WHO) and OBSTACLE confront one another in the final showdown, the outcome of which will determine whether or not the hero succeeds in attaining the GOAL.
- The wrap-up is everything that follows after the climax has ended.
Once you think about it, this kind of story progression seems perfectly logical for pretty much every storytelling medium. Nevertheless, a great many aspiring storytellers are unaware of this classical structure and, consequently, fail to tell their stories in the way most likely to meet with commercial success—in Hollywood and elsewhere.
Sometimes, one or more of these required elements will be completely absent. This hurts the storyteller’s chances not only with Hollywood, but with publishers as well. Story is story, regardless of medium.
Hollywood did not invent this; they merely codified it—because they have the greatest financial incentive to do so. When you’re plunking down millions or hundreds of millions of dollars to tell a story, you tend to sweat the details, to peek behind the curtain for a look at the structure holding up the beauty of a well-told story. And when you find that 90% of all commercially successful stories share the same structure, you want to see that structure firmly in place before hauling out your wallet.
(For more on structure, see Story Structure: Laying Down the Bones.)
None of this means your story can’t be chock full of other things as well, but these are some of the elements Hollywood considers crucial in its source material, including the books on which screenplays and movies are based.
To be sure, Hollywood is more comfortable reading screenplays and generally pays much more for scripts than it does for film rights to stories told in other formats (unless the source material is already hugely successful in its own right). As producer Michael Nozik notes, “studios are less willing to consider source material than finished screenplays based on the same material, and they’re willing to spend more when they can see it well executed as a screenplay, because you’re helping them get to the end zone—a finished film—quicker.” In short, when you have a screenplay, no one has to wonder how to “translate” the source material; you’ve done it for them.
Still, if you don’t have a screenplay to offer and are not interested in writing one (or hiring someone else to write one for you), the next best thing is telling your story in a way that makes it obviously cinematic. And while there’s more to that than concept and structure alone, these do form the foundation upon which all else is built, regardless of medium. And getting them right will help set you apart from the great mass of writers who, unknowingly, do not.
About the Author: John Robert Marlow is an award-winning novelist, screenwriter, and adaptation consultant. He recently closed a Hollywood script deal, an adaptation he wrote and will executive produce, with an estimated budget of $60 million. John’s nonfiction articles have appeared in the Writer’s Digest annuals, The Writer, Writers’ Journal, Parade, The Huffington Post, and elsewhere. John’s new book, Make Your Story a Movie: Adapting Your Book or Idea for Hollywood, contains advice from authors, screenwriters, producers, directors and others whose movies have collectively earned over $50 billion and scores of Academy Award nominations. John blogs at makeyourstoryamovie.com.
Please welcome author Debra Brenegan with an insightful guest post about grammar and writing.
We are all a little sloppy when we speak. We skip some of the basic grammar rules in order to create intimacy and shortcuts — like secrets between best friends. Such conversation helps us connect to others. But when casual phrases and speaking patterns seep into your writing, it can reflect negatively on you as a writer.
What Your Writing Says About You
In these Internet times, written communication is king, and the proper use of it separates the pros from the wannabes. Readers take writers’ messages more seriously when those messages are properly punctuated and correctly written. Readers don’t want to work to understand meaning. They might not realize it, but readers feel calm, serene, and cozy when you don’t make them strain for understanding. Realistically, the only time most people want to struggle with written language is when they’re stopped in traffic and faced with a vanity license plate.
In our split-second culture, time is essential. You want your message to get there fast and without misinterpretation. If the reading is easy, then the argument you’re making is easier to follow and easier to agree to. Let’s face it: All writing contains an argument, even if that argument is simply, “Read me – you won’t regret it.”
Good writing communicates that you are smart, or at least educated. This is not a bad impression to give – really! It makes what you’re trying to say more credible if you know how to say it.
In addition to demonstrating your education, you help educate others when you write correctly. Bad language/grammar usage is like a cold – it spreads until everyone is cranky and sick, and nobody remembers the days of clear-headedness. Don’t be afraid to counter this.
Remember Your Audience
Proper grammar matters most when you’re trying to communicate with people who aren’t your best friends, people who might judge you or think you’re unintelligent. Instead of giving you what you want – a job, attention, a vote — you end up turning off people because of your “spoken word” writing. Many people understand this regarding professional writing. Of course you want your résumé, application letter, and business memos to be clearly written and easy to understand, but creative writers need to know – and use – proper English, too.
Even in creative writing, editors and readers judge the writing. They want gorgeous prose, but they also want to be able to read it, to disappear into it, to forget that there are any mechanics behind the spin. Proper grammar and writing provides that invisibility and lets readers slip into your ideas, your story, and your writing.
Know the Rules before You Break the Rules
One of the underlying problems with rule-breaking is the question of its cause. Are you breaking the rules because you’re exercising your poetic license or because you can’t remember the difference between insure and ensure? If your reader can’t tell, you’re in trouble.
There’s certainly room for realistic-sounding dialogue and conversational prose, but underneath any stretching of proper rules are – the rules. You have to know the rules before you can break them. Good creative writers break the rules all the time, but they do so with purpose. It is unknowing breakage that damages credibility and your ability to communicate.
If you’re not feeling overly confident in your grammatical understanding, pick up a copy of the book Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss [Editor's note: this book uses British grammar] for a fun and simple review of the basics. In the meantime, here are a few common errors you can watch out for (and avoid!).
Misuse of prepositions has spread like the plague. I fumed one day when I was standing in the check-out line at Wal-Mart. After I swiped my credit card, the automatic display read, “Waiting on authorization.” It should be waiting for. Another misuse is “meeting up with” someone. People meet other people. They always have, and they always will. Only in a brief period of history (now) will anyone know what it means to meet “up” with someone else.
It is also common for people to say, “A student needs to learn all they can.” This is mixing a singular subject with a plural pronoun. Realistically, it should read, “A student needs to learn all he or she can.” The he/she construction, although correct, is bulky. You can usually avoid this type of confusion by making the subject plural so that it reads, “Students need to learn all they can.” [Editor's note: using they as a generic pronoun is becoming more acceptable, though it's still technically incorrect. Grammar Girl has a detailed article that thoroughly addresses "Generic Singular Pronouns."]
And finally, it seems too obvious to even include here, but people often use texting shortcuts in professional settings. “OMG” and “UR Gr8” have no place outside of texts and Twitter. And even in an email, don’t forget to capitalize things like my name. I’ll be much more likely to finish reading what you wrote.
Outdated Rules You CAN Break
Comma use has become more streamlined, thanks to widespread Internet copy and Associated Press (AP) style for journalism. Moreover, colons and semicolons seem like daguerreotypes of great ancestors, especially in modern writing. Yes, they are sometimes needed, but often, a comma or a dash will do instead. Don’t use a hyphen (also known as an en dash) instead of a dash (the big one, or em dash) or vice versa. Hyphens bring together, and dashes separate.
The rule most commonly broken without freaking people out is the one about fragments. They are now considered almost cool. As long as they’re not overused. Or senseless. Or too repetitive. Or used when someone is allergic to verbs. But other than those occasions, fragments are a nice way to occasionally break the rules. Just don’t use comma splices, which is the fancy word your 5th-grade teacher meant when he/she wrote, “run-on sentence,” over and over, down the right margin of your essay.
The English language is beautiful and complex, but it can also be a little daunting if the rules don’t come naturally to you. Take the time to relearn some of the rules you may have forgotten. Your readers will appreciate it, and there will be more of them!
About the Author: Debra Brenegan is the author of Shame the Devil, a historical account of nineteenth-century American writer Fanny Fern. Debra is also an English and Women’s Studies professor at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri.