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Monday, July 26, 2021

The Steadfast, Flat-Arc Protagonist in Story: The Middle

Last week I began breaking down story structure according to positive steadfast, flat-arc protagonists--protagonists who don't much change their primary worldview (this is sometimes referred to as the "truth," which is essentially the story's theme). Here we continue that journey into the middle. 

I hope this is helpful to anyone who has struggled with the flat-arc characters. 

Just as a recap, there are three categories of positive steadfast protagonists.

1. One that experiences little to no doubt, such as James Barrie in Finding Neverland. (Because they experience no doubt, there isn't much of an internal journey plotline, so another type of plotline will be emphasized in its place--likely the world/society or the Influence Character plotline.)

2. One that doubts applying the truth (his or her accurate worldview) in one of these ways:

- Doesn't know how to actually do what he needs to do (i.e. We all believe no one should go hungry, but how do we actually solve world hunger?), such as Ashitaka in Princess Mononoke.

- Doubts his capabilities. Does he have what it takes to claim victory? Can he survive the costs? This is where Peter Parker is at in the beginning of Spider-man 2.

- Doubts her role or worthiness. Should she be the person taking this journey? This is what happens in Moana

3. One that entertains doubt concerning the truth, the accurate worldview. Could the opposing worldview (the lie, the misbelief, the anti-theme) be the right one? Diana does this in Wonder Woman.

These are not all exclusive. For example, a protagonist may doubt her worthiness and begin doubting her accurate worldview (the truth). A protagonist may also be one way for the primary theme, but a different way for a secondary theme. For example, in Finding Neverland, James Barrie never doubts the primary theme (that playfulness empowers us by getting us to believe in something more), but he does express doubt in the secondary theme (that sincere friendship is more important than reputation). 

Again, here are our breakdowns of the stories we're dissecting as examples.

Monday, July 19, 2021

The Steadfast, Flat-Arc Protagonist in Story: The Beginning

A couple of times, I've been asked to explain how positive steadfast, flat-arc protagonists actually work in story structure (or "beat sheets," if you prefer that term). Luckily, as I mentioned in a previous post, the flat-arc protagonist story has pretty much all the same pieces as the change-arc protagonist story--many of them are just reversed. 

This means, that frankly, a lot of the same moments happen, if a little differently.

Writing a steadfast protagonist is like being left-handed in a right-handed world. Same world. Different experience.

Since this can (like a lot of writing concepts) be a little difficult to "see," I'm gonna go ahead and guide you through a positive steadfast protagonist story. 

Well, three in fact.

And even if you never intend to write a flat-arc story, this may still be helpful to some degree, as most stories will feature a flat-arc character, even if they are not the protagonist. (However, I wouldn't recommend getting hung up on trying to make a side flat-arc character hit all the same points as a protagonist one would.)

One of the most obvious differences in structure is that the positive, steadfast, flat-arc protagonist starts on an accurate worldview--sometimes referred to as the "truth." This is almost always, more or less, the primary theme of the story. By the end of the story, this worldview will be proven true, so the protagonist ultimately doesn't flip in his or her beliefs, making him or her "steadfast." (In contrast, a positive change character will start with an inaccurate worldview--the "lie" or "misbelief" or "flaw"--this is basically the "anti-theme"--the opposing argument to the "truth." The positive change character will change to the "truth," the accurate worldview, the true thematic statement at the end.)

However, many stories have more than one theme. Many stories have secondary themes.

Because of this, it's possible for the positive steadfast character to be steadfast in the primary theme, but be a change character in the secondary theme. A steadfast protagonist may or may not be steadfast for every theme. But by definition, they must be steadfast for the primary theme (obviously).

This is why you may see writers argue over whether a particular character has a change or flat arc, and why the same character may get categorized differently--it depends entirely on what thematic thread the person is pulling.

For example, in The Lion King, Simba is ultimately a steadfast protagonist in the primary theme--he believes in the Circle of Life at the beginning, and even though he temporarily loses sight of that, he ultimately holds true to it at the end. However, he's a change character in the secondary theme of responsibility--he starts out believing in irresponsibility but flips into embracing responsibility at the end. Because of this, different people may get in arguments about how he arcs.

Someday I will write a post specifically on secondary themes and secondary arcs. For now, I do want to illustrate how secondary themes and arcs play out for steadfast protagonists, as I feel they can be particularly important in understanding them (Simba's structure being just one example). 

Monday, July 12, 2021

The 8 Types of Conflict (with Examples, Possible Resolutions, and Stakes)

Every story needs a character in a setting engaged in conflict. But sometimes writers get hyper-focused on one or two types of conflict, and never explore or include the other types. This can make a story feel flat or repetitive (similar to what I touched on in my plotlines post). Sometimes the writer senses that there is something wrong, so tries to add more to the story, but they end up either adding more to the same conflict, or simply adding the same type of conflict. Like always, I'm never going to say you can't ever do this, but just that it's almost always more satisfying if you put in a variety. Variety gives a story more depth and breadth--and also keeps things interesting.

Conflict is key in moving plot, character arc, and theme forward--in other words, the whole story forward. No conflict = no story. If there is no struggle, the character never grows. If there is no opposing argument, the theme never carries its weight. If there is no antagonistic force, no climax is earned. 

Early on in my writing journey, I was only introduced to five types of conflict. And indeed you can find arguments about what does and does not count as a conflict type (and some types can overlap). But today I've put together a comprehensive list of the most prevalent categories--and I think just about any conflict will fit within one of them. I'll also share a few things about each along the way. 

Monday, June 28, 2021

How to Actually Use a Story Structure

In the writing community, there are three story structures (in addition to basic story structure) that tend to get the most attention: 7 Point Story Structure, The Hero's Journey, and Save the Cat! These structures (and similar ones) are also sometimes called "beat sheets." (And worth keeping in mind is that, in the writing world, some terms can be ambiguous, as both "structure" and "beats" are used in other situations as well.) 

These are essentially approaches that help you see, understand, and match the (arguably natural) progression of a good story. Some writers, especially beginning writers, dislike story structures because they can appear formulaic--sucking out the mysticism, magic, and creativity of writing. While no one has to use a story structure, of course, if you share these sentiments, I think eventually you'll find over time, that these structures actually do the opposite. And they lead us to ask bigger questions about the human experience: Why do these structures feel so right to us as human beings? Is it because they ring true to our own journeys, to reality?

But rather than talk about the psychological and archetypal significance of structure 😉, let's first talk about how to actually use a story structure. Because I think some writers struggle with that.

Story time:

Years ago, I was preparing to brainstorm and outline a future book I wanted to write. And I thought, Hey, why not do this properly and go to story structure right away? It will save me such a headache!

But funny enough, I was having a difficult time figuring out how to actually brainstorm and plot out my story with a story structure.

So I took to the web.

And some books.

Searching and scanning and looking. . . .

And you know what I found?

There wasn't a single professional writer that actually came up with a story using story structure!

Even those that claimed to--that said they were going to show how do it--actually did something different: They simply plugged in stuff they'd already brainstormed. 🤦‍♀️

I admit at first, I was a little disappointed.

I'm not going to say you can't come up with a story using story structure right away, but I know almost no one who does it. And some of the (unpublished) attempts I've run into, often do feel a bit stilted, somehow lacking heart. 

Monday, June 21, 2021

How Character Creates Context

I've been reading Dwight V. Swain's famous book, Techniques of the Selling Writer; published in 1965, it's kind of considered a classic in the writing world, and so far, I've been impressed with how his advice has held up. This book is most famous for Swain's approach to scene structure ("scene" and "sequel"--if you've heard of that) as well as what he calls motivation reaction units (or MRUs). But it covers plenty of other topics as well, one of which is context. 

Now, when I talk about context, I'm not talking about the year a story is written, who it is written by, or the climate of that time. Context in a story is all the information the audience needs to accurately interpret, understand, and assign value to, what is happening. It includes all the grounding and guiding information the audience may need, such as who the characters are or where it takes place, as well as any pertinent worldbuilding information, such as taboos of the time period or the rules of a magic system. This enables the audience to derive meaning from what is happening

When the audience lacks context, the story becomes very vague, which is a problem for several reasons. (See my post on vague vs. ambiguous for further reading.) If there is no context, there is almost no investment in the story, because the audience doesn't have access to the meaning of any of it. If they don't have access to any clear meaning, they are unable to care about what happens. Perhaps the only time where a lack of context works well is when writing teasers (which must always be short strictly because they lack context). An audience will not sit through a lack of context for very long.

Context will usually be supplied through the viewpoint character or narrator (and in most stories, these will be essentially the same, and usually be the protagonist). Whoever is telling the story, will convey the setup of a scene and slide in any important information--such as the laws of a dystopian society or why the Smith family who lives down the street matters. One thing newer writers need to be careful of, is to not make the context into subtext. Context = what the audience needs, to understand what is happening in the text itself. Subtext = additional information that is implied from the text. Context allows us to understand the text, which then allows us access to subtext.

In his book, Swain talks specifically about how character creates context, which is what I'd like to share with everyone today. 

As events unfold in a story, the reader needs to be able to assign value to whether what happened was good or bad. Say that a big rainstorm comes in the story, is that good or bad (or irrelevant)? What about a bombing raid? Good or bad?

As readers, we might bring some of our own experiences and opinions to the text, but in order to properly experience a story, we need to be able to assign value to events in the story. Some of that value will come from the potential consequences (stakes) of the event. But a lot of that value will come from the characters. 

If the character is suffering a drought, then a big rainstorm will be a blessing. If a character has her clothes hanging out to dry, then a big rainstorm will be a curse. 

"A thing matters only insofar as it relates to and affects and is judged by people. . . . We decide how significant a thing is by the way a particular somebody behaves when faced with a specific instance." - Dwight V. Swain. 

Without someone to orient us as to whether something is good or bad, we are just reading about events

Meaning and significance only take real effect when we know about the characters. As an audience, what we have to gain or lose from an event in a story, will be based on what the characters have to gain or lose and who we are rooting for. What the character wants (goal), what the character has to lose (stakes), and how the character feels about events (reaction) help readers assign meaning and interpretation to what happens (plot). Otherwise, it's just stuff happening. (And trust me, I've read passages of "just stuff happening" and it's not very interesting.)

Let's look at an example. Last week I saw the musical Annie. Early in the play, Annie tries and manages to escape from the orphanage . . .

Event: Sneaking out of the orphanage.

Protagonist: Annie

Goal: Escape the orphanage, so she can find her parents

Stakes: If she finds her parents, she can be part of a loving family. If she doesn't find her parents, she'll live the next several years as an orphan under the mean Miss Hannigan (and probably never have a loving family). 

Reaction: Glad (and optimistic) to have escaped and to be looking for her parents

The event itself, "sneaking out of the orphanage," could be interpreted as a good thing or a bad thing. But it's Annie who equips us to properly identify it as a good thing. 

Because Annie is who we care about, and (furthermore) because we know her goal and the stakes tied to it, we view the fact she sneaks out of the orphanage as something successful, as something good. Her reaction strengthens that. Running away from the orphanage is progress

However, in contrast, if Miss Hannigan was the focal character, then the same event would be interpreted as something bad. Miss Hannigan's goal is to keep Annie from leaving. If Annie leaves, Miss Hannigan could get in trouble with the law. Annie sneaking out is a setback.

This is all in general, of course, because like all writing things, there are exceptions. It is possible to deviate the audience's experience from the protagonist's experience. After all, in A Christmas Carol, the audience isn't meant to share Scrooge's views on Christmas in the beginning. The narrator, tone, promises made, and simply our own cultural understandings may provide a context that is the exact opposite of the protagonist's experience. However, one may argue, that in some sense, we are being provided more than one "context" or interpretation of events. Scrooge's and our own. 

Also, if you have multiple viewpoint characters throughout your story, it may be that the protagonist of the story, may not be the "protagonist" of a particular scene. You may have a viewpoint character who acts as the focal character for the scene. 

So this can all get pretty messy, pretty fast. 

But notice in these examples, the audience is essentially being given multiple interpretations of the story's events. This creates ambiguity. Ambiguity happens when something has multiple interpretations. Vagueness happens when something has no clear interpretation. Ambiguity is fine and is often a great tool to use. Vagueness is often problematic, as it makes the text inaccessible to the audience. 

So having multiple entities create context for the audience is okay.  Having no entity create clear context is problematic--because the audience can't care about what happens, if they can't interpret it.

As you work on your writing this week, maybe make sure your scene has these things: 

A clear focal character

with a goal

that has stakes.

An event related to that goal

and the focal character's reaction to that event.

This will help draw your audience in, because they'll have context, which allows them to make meaningful interpretations. 

Monday, June 14, 2021

3 Categories of Steadfast, Flat-arc Characters

Recently, I wrote a couple of articles on the positive steadfast (also known as flat-arc) character. First I did one debunking six myths about them, then I did one on the basic principles of a steadfast, flat-arc protagonist. Today I'm going to talk about the three different categories they fit into, which, as I'll show later, will influence how you write their stories, particularly if they are the protagonists. 

Steadfast/flat-arc characters are characters who don't drastically change their worldviews over the course of the narrative. In contrast, a change character will do largely a 180 flip in worldview from the beginning of the story to the end of the story. For example, in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), Charlie maintains the same worldview at the beginning and at the end. In contrast, in The Emperor's New Groove, Kuzco does a 180 flip in worldview from the beginning to the end, because of the story. 

Both types of characters will be tested through the obstacles and conflicts of the middle. The difference is that the steadfast character will (ultimately) remain steadfast to their beliefs in spite of the tests, and the change character will transform because of the tests. 

There are positive and negative versions of each type of character. Characters who hold strong or change for the good (or rather, for the accurate worldview--sometimes referred to as the "truth") have positive arcs. While characters who hold strong or change for the worse (or an inaccurate worldview--sometimes called the "lie") have negative arcs. 

I've been asked a couple of times to break down how a steadfast protagonist story is structured differently from (or similarly to) a change protagonist story. This is forthcoming, but in the process, I realized I needed to talk about three categories of flat-arc protagonists, because to some extent, that influences how the story is structured. 

Now, as with most writing things, this is really more of a spectrum than exact categories, but being able to categorize helps us make informed writing decisions. 

In my post, "Principles of the Steadfast, Flat-arc Protagonist," I echoed K. M. Weiland's assertion that doubt is key to creating a meaningful internal journey for the flat-arc character. I pointed out that some steadfast characters doubt very little, while others may be brought to their knees by doubt. But not all doubt is the same, and not all doubts hit with the same force. 

This is why it's helpful to break down the steadfast character further. Below we move from little to no doubt, to the most crippling forms of doubt.

Please note that for my examples, I'm specifically using positive steadfast characters. For negative steadfast characters, you'd simply flip the worldview so that they start and end on the inaccurate one.

I've also chosen to focus on protagonists in particular, but most stories will feature a steadfast character, even if the protagonist has a change arc. Considering the following can still help with writing steadfast side characters. (And if you are writing with a change protagonist, it's likely the Influence Character will be a steadfast one).

Monday, May 31, 2021

6 Tricks to Layer on Stakes

Every great story has stakes--things that are at risk throughout the plot. It might be that the protagonist's life is at risk, or perhaps a romantic relationship, or maybe the opportunity to go on a long-awaited trip. Years ago, I had a hard time understanding stakes, and I think it was in part because they were often defined vaguely. Everything clicked when I realized that they are really potential consequences, which is how I prefer to define them now. 

Stakes are significant events that could happen, and they include a sense of cause and effect. Typically, you can fit stakes into an "if . . . then . . . " statement (even if it's not literally written as one in the text):

"If I don't defeat [the antagonist], then he'll hurt my family."
"If you become a vampire, then the only thing you'll love is blood."
"If we don't fight back, then he'll take all our land, our homes, our lives we built."
"If we don't keep moving, then dehydration will kill us."

Great stakes are closely related to tension, suspense, and hooks. All three get the audience to look forward and anticipate what could happen, usually by getting the audience to hope or fear a potential consequence. The audience then has to keep reading to discover the actual outcome.

All easier said than done. For many writers, stakes can be difficult to get on the page specifically because they require the writer to brainstorm possible, future outcomes--some of which may not actually happen.

For example, say your characters are stranded in a desert. They decide if they don't keep moving, they could die of dehydration. But perhaps, in reality, it turns out if they had stayed put, they would have been rescued. Stakes aren't always about what actually happens. Remember, they are about risk.

In a page-turner of a story, you'll want to brainstorm and put in much more stakes, or potential consequences, in the text than what actually happens. For some of us, it's hard to brainstorm enough of those, so here are some tricks.

1. Look at both positive and negative potential consequences.

When it comes to stakes, we often focus on the negative . . . because that is what is at risk.

"If [the protagonist] doesn't defeat [the antagonist], [the antagonist] will take over the world."

But putting positive outcomes on the page can sometimes be just as effective.

"If Samantha can nail this audition, then she can finally star in a movie."

In this example, a positive potential consequence is what is at risk. Sure, we could change it to a negative--if she doesn't nail the audition, she can't star in a movie.

But the exercise of looking at both positive and negative potential consequences can help you brainstorm new ones. After all, if we were only looking at the negative, we may not have come up with "starring in a movie."

2. Add to the cause-and-effect trajectory

Once you have one stake on the page, you can often add more to it, by taking the cause-and-effect trajectory out further. Suzanne Collins does this well in the opening of The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes.

If the protagonist can’t eat cabbage soup, then he can’t get his stomach to stop growling (consequence #1), which means people will realize he’s poor, not rich (consequence #2), which means his reputation will be ruined (consequence #3), which means he’ll lose his opportunity to be a mentor through his school program (consequence #4), which means he’ll unlikely be able to meet the credentials needed for college (consequence #5), which means his family won’t be taken care of (consequence #6), which means his cousin might have to succumb to prostitution (consequence #7).

Whew, that's a lot that hinges on making cabbage soup. Suddenly finding out whether or not the cabbage soup is going to work feels way more important!

You don't have to take it out that far, but hopefully you get the idea.

3. Consider broad potential consequences

Another helpful approach is to look at how a potential consequence can have broader ramifications.

This works even with personal matters.

"If Jasper doesn't return Emily's love with a proposal, her descendants may be doomed to live in poverty."

Here, something personal, love, has been broadened to include a family line--all of Emily's children.

"If George doesn't get to water, he could die of dehydration, which means his evil uncle could take the throne."

In this example, the protagonist's possible death affects a whole kingdom.

4. Consider personal potential consequences

A reverse of the previous is to look at ways to make potential outcomes more personal.

"If I don't defeat the antagonist, he'll take over the world--my mom, dad, Frankie, my entire hometown won't survive."

Here we move from a broad problem to a personal risk.

5. Pull in other cause-and-effect trajectories

In most stories, there are multiple cause-and-effect trajectories at work--this is what makes up the plot. There might be a primary plot, a secondary plot, tertiary plot, etc. There might be cause-and-effect trajectories that only last for several chapters or less.

One way to brainstorm more stakes, is to try to connect the current situation to an indirect stake.

For example, say in one plotline, the protagonist is concerned about training her dog. In another plotline, she's concerned about getting her love interest to take notice of her. They may seem pretty unrelated, but you can look for ways to make them connect. If she can't get her dog trained, then Fido might decide to try to chase after the love interest's car--earning her the wrong kind of attention.

6. Look at perceived threats

Sometimes a perceived risk can also work well. Meaning, the character thinks something is at risk, when it actually isn't. Multiple times in the Harry Potter series, Harry is at risk of being killed or expelled, but since we know there are more books in the series, we can surmise that he won't be . . . at least not until near the end, probably. 

Or perhaps you are writing about a child who thinks if she lies to her teacher, she'll go to jail. This is obviously not true, but to her, it's a possibility. 

When perceived threats are written well, it can often feel as if they are real, even when the audience knows they aren't. This can be effective to layer on (and is better than nothing), but needs to be mixed up with the others, as its often not as powerful.

With these six approaches, you should be armed to brainstorm more, significant stakes. To learn more about stakes, you can read my other article on them here: How to Write Stakes in Storytelling.

Monday, May 24, 2021

Picking the RIGHT Details

If you've been writing very long, you'll know the importance of mentioning details in your writing. Appealing to the senses and attention to detail is what will ground your reader and bring your story to life. Details often make it so that your reader experiences your story, instead of just reading about it.

So as writers, we might want to mention what a character is wearing, the color of her hair, the smell of a river, or the texture of a tent. Usually we want to tag our character's with a particular description. If you read Harry Potter, you'll know the Minister of Magic, Fudge, always has a bowler hat, that Dumbledore has twinkling eyes and half-moon spectacles, that Professor Trelawney wears shawls and smells like sherry. J.K. Rowling regularly mentions the same details for these characters to tag them. This helps readers remember who the characters are and reminds them of their demeanors and behaviors.

But sometimes as writers, we don't pick meaningful details. We just pick something. We might say that "the man wore a white shirt." Okay. But that's so generic, we might as well not even mention it. It's so generic, that the reader is going to forget it almost immediately after reading it. It's not even characteristically interesting enough to be a tag. So it won't even help us remember the character.

Monday, May 17, 2021

How Each of the 5 Major Plot Points Turns a Story

I recently had an epiphany on structure that I wanted to share. When I first realized this, it felt pretty significant (at least to me), but as more time has gone on, I've realized, in some sense, it's actually kind of obvious--I just hadn't seen it from this perspective before 😆 I'm willing to bet a lot of others haven't either, so it's definitely something I want to share. But where to start? I think I'll start with a problem I ran into: midpoints.

Midpoints happen in the middle of the story (usually around the 50% mark, give or take). It's a moment when new, significant information--or at least a shift in context--enters and turns the story in a different direction. To put more simply (or in some ways, vaguely), it's when the protagonist gets a sense of what's "really going on" in the plot.