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Monday, December 9, 2019

The Struggle is Real: Make Your Protagonist Suffer for Success!

Lately I've been thinking about stories where the protagonist doesn't really struggle. You don't see this in published works very much, but it crops up in unpublished fiction from time to time.

Sure, these stories may have conflict, maybe even tension. And so the writer might even think that the story does have struggle in it. But it doesn't have real struggle. Instead, conflicts are resolved with little to no suffering or sacrifice from the protagonist.

Heck, maybe even the conflict isn't resolved the first or second time, and yet, the story still lacks the struggle. That can happen.

Say you have a conflict that your character is trying to resolve, and he tries to resolve it three different ways, and the third way works--that doesn't necessarily mean he really struggled. It might only mean he only tried three different things.

But struggle is real.

Even people who are good people, with good successful lives, have struggles. Earlier this year, we had to put down our beloved family dog. She was sixteen. Maggie was one of the best, kindest dogs I ever met. She didn't do anything wrong. We gave her a good life. But guess what? She still struggled.

Rich people struggle. Famous people struggle. Loved people struggle. We sometimes perceive that if we just obtain X, we won't have to suffer and sacrifice and struggle, but the reality is, even good things can have their own negative problems attached to them. For example, I once heard a child of a rich and famous celebrity say he struggled making friends, because a lot of people wanted to pretend to be his friend to get to his dad. I'm not saying that some people don't suffer worse, they do; but everyone suffers.

Mozart struggled composing his next great symphony, despite being a master. Jesus Christ struggled at the end of his mortal ministry, despite being perfect (whether or not you believe it was true, it's still part of the story told). Lin-Manuel Miranda struggled to be taken seriously when working on Hamilton. Even if we become successful business owners, we have to deal with pressure and make continued sacrifices.

Sorry to tell you that even highly successful people like Mozart struggle.

So when I read a story where a protagonist doesn't struggle, I can't help but think, life just isn't like that. It's not realistic. Now, I'm not saying everything is doom and gloom all the time. But guys, even when I'm pursuing something I love more than anything (writing), it's still hard! There are negative consequences to positive actions. It's just the way life works. Everything, and I mean everything, is a give and take. Problems and obstacles never go away.

And having a good life and being a good person does take work and effort. It doesn't just happen. You have to make it happen. And that requires sacrifice.

And yet, even with all this stated, there will be some writers who don't want to make their characters struggle. They enjoy the characters and just want to write a nice story.

Look, I'm not saying you need to smother them by overwhelming them. But in order for them to learn and grow, or to illustrate the theme, you need to have them struggle in something.

Don't forget the power of contrasting in storytelling.

The greater the struggle.

The more powerful the reward.

It's often the contrast that makes stories meaningful, whether that's a Christmas Hallmark movie where the protagonist is struggling with a choice between a big city job and small town love, or Frodo Baggins near Mount Doom struggling with the weight of the entire world on his shoulders (and darkness within). If your character isn't struggling with something, then overcoming problems won't feel as earned. The story's climax and falling action will never be fully satisfying.

Sometimes writers are afraid to give their protagonists hard things. They just don't want to take the character there. Or they just want to show how wonderful and amazing this character is. That this character is just that good.

But it's not the innocent, inexperienced person that is most beautiful and amazing. It's the person who can still be good despite life's hardships, or, perhaps, because of them. Those are the kind of people we want to root for (generally speaking of course).

Not people who have it so easy, that they never suffer--that's not real life. The real world is unfair.

Sometimes we don't layer on the struggle because we are afraid of rendering it--maybe we are afraid we can't render it. Or maybe we just don't want to.

With writing, if that is our reason for not doing something, then we are going to have problems. You need to learn to render it.

Even if your character is a good person doing good things with good outcomes, ask yourself: What are some of the negative consequences they will have to face for doing X?  What personal sacrifices do they have to make to accomplish whatever good thing they want to do?

If you look at famous story structures, they almost always speak to the protagonist's struggle. And in many stories, this struggle will reach its most intense moment at plot point two, when it seems everything is lost . . . until the protagonist makes the biggest sacrifice yet. From there, the protagonist will be tested yet again during the climax, to prove they have fully overcome the difficulty.

Everything costs something.

For an effective story, make sure your protagonist is struggling for success. 


Last week I mentioned an advent calendar for writers that I'm participating in. (We are giving away $2,600 in prizes). And today is my day! 😍 Click the little window on the webpage to see what you can win from me 🥰

Monday, December 2, 2019

Advent Calendar for Writers! (Over $2600 in Prizes!)

This time of year, it’s always wonderful to look back and feel good about the progress we’ve made. Whether we took small steps forward or big ones, each one steers us toward our writing goals. So, celebrate your hard work and feel good about what you’ve accomplished! 

And guess what? We want to help you celebrate! 

Have you heard of the Advent Calendar for Writers? It’s a show-stopper event put on by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi at Writers Helping Writers, and just like those chocolate-filled calendars, you open a “window” each day and find an incredible prize to be won. 

This is no small giveaway, either: this Advent Calendar has over $2600 in prizes (including something from me!)

Visit Writers Helping Writers between December 1st and December 14th and open the Advent Calendar window to reveal that day’s giveaway. Enter and while you’re at it, why not be a good writing buddy and let some writer friends know so they can enter too!

Once a giveaway is live, you can enter right up until December 19th so make sure to hit all 14 giveaways. We would love to see one of you win something special for yourself—good luck! 

Monday, November 25, 2019

Scene vs. Sequence vs. Act

If you are like me, you've probably heard the terms "scene," and "act," and maybe even "sequence" at least a dozen (if not a hundred) times without anyone explaining what they actually are. For most of my writerly life, I've heard about the 3-Act Structure, without anyone explaining to me what an act actually is. Sure, they may tell me what story parts go in which one, what happens, but they don't tell me what it actually is. Like, why is that stuff an act? What makes this a scene? And what is a sequence? 🤦‍♀️

So with this post, I'm hoping to help others with that, explaining what these things are, structurally, after all, they are structural terms.

(Though, as I've acknowledge before, much of story structure can get down to how you decide to slice and dice it, and people use different terminology, making writing terms a bit slippery, naturally.)


If you don't have an exact understanding of what a scene is, you probably at least have a vague one, thanks to the scene selection menu on movies or the high school play you saw being rehearsed in the auditorium as a teenager.

A scene is a unit of action that takes place in a single location and continuous time. When the location changes, or the time jumps, or in some cases (particularly in plays) when a new set of characters enter the location, it's a new scene.

In Guardians of the Galaxy, the opening scene is when Peter is a kid and his mom is lying in a hospital bed dying from cancer, and it ends as he runs outside and is abducted.

Then we jump to 26 years later on a different planet--a new scene.

Seems simple enough, right?

But here's the thing, for a scene to work structurally, it actually needs to do more than that. The scene is a structural unit, perhaps even more so than a setting unit (time or place), but often, people only define it using setting terms, like we have so far.

In reality, a scene follows the same basic structure of the overall story.

And it typically breaks down in similar ways (or usually should).

Open with a hook
Establish the setup (where and when we are and what characters are in the scene)
Have a rising action with complications
Hit a climax
Have a falling action or denouement

You can even break this down further (remember how I said it depends on how you want to slice and dice it?)

Inciting Incident (or what you may think of as "plot point 1")
Rising action with progressive complications
Crisis moment (or what you may think of as "plot point 2")
Falling action

You could even add a midpoint in there.

About a year ago, I broke down how I thought about scene structure.

Now, some people like to think of the climax as a "turning point."  In this sense, "climax" and "turning point" are simply different perspectives to view the same thing.

There are also other ways you can slice and dice it that I haven't yet added on my blog. A very popular one is often referred to as "scene and sequel" which goes like this:

Part 1 (Action):
- Goal
- Conflict
- Outcome

Part 2 (Reaction):
- Reaction
- Dilemma
- Decision

Some writers argue these are two different scenes, and others say they are two parts of one scene. Once again, it comes down to how you want to slice and dice it and how you define scene. Certainly these parts could be written to obtain the same shape, either together, or individually, which bring me to a point I talked about earlier this year: this story shape permeates everything.

Find which slicing and dicing method works best for you. Some click with me and others don't so much.

Just remember that a scene typically takes place in a single location and a continuous time and structurally has that shape.

If it does not have that shape in some way, it probably falls flat.

(For a full breakdown of how that shape works in a scene, go here.)

If you watch the opening scene of Guardians carefully, you will see it follows that shape.

However, keep in mind that like everything in writing, rules can be broken. This is generally how scenes work and how you get them to work consistently, but there are occasions where you can bend the rules.


A sequence is a step up from a scene but smaller than an act.

A sequence is made up of scenes that are building up to a somewhat larger climactic moment or "turning point."

Because a sequence includes multiple scenes, it is not bound by a single location or time frame.

Let's say you are writing a story where at some point, the viewpoint character is kidnapped.

You might start with a scene where the kid is playing at the park and is approached by a predator who wrangles her into a moving van and ties her up. (Notice how that completes that story shape.)

The next scene jumps to the moving van slowing down, with the girl still tied up in the back. She's afraid of where she is going to go next, but as she listens, she realizes that her predator has actually been pulled over by police for speeding. She tries to bang around and cry for help, but she has a gag and isn't aided.

Next, we cut to her in the predator's dingy basement where two other girls are, every victim untied and ungagged. She talks and cries to them and tries to get out, but they are completely locked in. There is no way out.

Those three scenes make up a sequence, a "kidnapping" sequence. Notice how the sequence escalates, the viewpoint character going from being safe at a park to being kidnapped and locked in a basement.

It follows this same shape.

If you slice and dice it, it will have these same elements:

Rising Action
Falling Action

You can have more than three scenes in a sequence and you can have two.

Since I used Guardians of the Galaxy as an example earlier, let's grab a sequence from that as an example. At one point in the movie, Peter, Gamora, Rocket, and Groot are thrown into prison, where we will have multiple scenes. We have a scene about them getting "checked in," a scene about them interacting with the other inhabitants, and a scene where Peter wakes up in the night and saves Gamora (meeting Drax). You could call this the prison-initiation sequence.

Notice that it too follows that shape. Hook, setup, rising action, climax, falling action.


An act is bigger than a sequence but smaller than the whole plot.

An act is made up of sequences that are building up to a larger climactic moment or "turning point."

It follows the same shape on a bigger scale.

Maybe in our story about the kidnapper, the kidnapping is plot point one of the whole story. So previous to that were sequences about the characters' ordinary lives and their smaller problems within that. That means from the beginning to the end of the kidnapping sequence is the first act.

If you slice and dice it, it will have these same elements:

Rising Action
Falling Action

You can have more than three sequences in an act and you can have two.

In Guardians of the Galaxy, I would say the first act ends just after the prison-initiation sequence. We've been introduced to the main characters and now have a new goal, which will start the next rising action.

Even though I think scenes are talked about ambiguously, I have to say that acts are talked about even more ambiguously. Most people just follow the 3-Act structure, with beginning, middle, and end. Sure, you can slice any story that way, I guess, but for me, that often doesn't tell me enough about what an act actually is. What it means, is that there should be a climactic moment near the end of the beginning, near the end of the middle, and near the end of the end.

If the midpoint is a big climactic moment in its own right (or at least, if not the midpoint, leading up to the midpoint), I would personally view it as having four acts.

(By the way, I'm aware my images aren't necessarily in the right proportions 😅)

And you can actually have even five or six or possibly seven acts--if you are hyper-focused on a main plot with little or no subplots and lots of twists, turns, and climactic reveals. But that's a bit more intensive than I want to get into today.

I would recommend taking this concept of an act and using it to benefit your perspective of your story. If you want to stick to the 3-Act Structure, because viewing it that way works best for you, great. Just remember that you need this same shape for the beginning, middle, and end. If you have a big climactic moment that is or near the midpoint, you might want to view your story as having four acts, each with this structure.

The point is that each unit is rising, climaxing, and falling within bigger rising, climaxing, and falling units, as the story escalates overall.

If you have a part of your story that doesn't seem to be working, or seems to be flat, or bottoming out wrong, use this to troubleshoot the problem. Check that your scene follows this shape. Check that your sequence follows this shape. Check that you have multiple acts that follow this shape. These shapes need to be inside the overall plot shape.

Overall, each act should be more intense than the previous act.

Overall, each sequence should be more intense than the previous sequence.

Overall, within a sequence, each scene should be more intense than the previous scene.

Generally speaking.

Of course, if you have subplots or secondary plots (as most do), you may think of having multiple plot lines that do this. So if you have a scene introducing a subplot, it may not necessarily feel more intense than the scene literally before it, but rather, within each plot line, the intensity increases.

Confused? Hopefully not. Just remember the shapes and the units--the rest is all in how you want to slice and dice.  

NOTE: Black Friday is this week, and if you are looking for some writerly gifts, I have a list of recommended books here. As you may have noticed, I don't use ads on my blog, and I put my own money into it every year, but, I use affiliate links, which means anything you buy off Amazon through the link, I get a very small cut of 💖 In any case, have a great week, and Happy Thanksgiving to those in the U.S.

Monday, November 18, 2019

How to Add Dimension to Your Story's Theme

A lot of writers believe you cannot intentionally write to a theme. I completely disagree. And I'm suspicious that those who say that, just don't understand how to write to theme intentionally. They claim that if you do, you'll just become preachy. Sure, that can absolutely happen, but it only happens when you don't understand how theme actually works in a story.

You see, for a theme statement to be powerful, it needs to have opposition. Who cares if the tortoise in "The Tortoise and the Hare" wins, if he isn't racing the hare to begin with? No one. The thematic statement ("It's better to move forward at a steady pace than go so fast we burn ourselves out") is only powerful because we see it paired up with its opposite (the hare).

Often it's helpful to breakdown how theme functions, like I did in this article. But here is a quick recap.

Every story has a thematic statement.

A thematic statement is essentially the teaching of a story. So for the Good Samaritan, the thematic statement is, "We should love, be kind to, and serve everyone."

The Little Red Hen: If you don't contribute or work, you don't get the rewards of those efforts.

The Ant and the Grasshopper: If all we do is have fun and entertain ourselves, we won't be prepared for difficult times.

Harry Potter: Love is the most powerful force in the world

On a broader scope, we have a theme topic. The subject or topic about which something is taught. It's the concept, without the teaching attached. It's what the theme or story is "about," in an abstract sense.

Here are the theme topics of those stories:

The Little Red Hen: Contribution and work

The Ant and the Grasshopper: Preparation

Harry Potter: Love

In a strong story, the theme topic will be explored during the narrative, through plot or character or both. The story will ask (directly or indirectly) questions about the theme topic. This can happen through main characters and main plots, or side characters and subplots, or all of the above.

Often, in most stories, the protagonist's character arc starts an a false or inaccurate idea about the theme topic and ends on the true thematic statement. Example: Harry starts unloved and powerless, living in a cupboard. By the end, he's surrounded by supporters, and he's willing to sacrifice himself (the ultimate manifestation of love) to pave the way for Voldemort's defeat. 

Between the false thematic statement and the true thematic statement is the struggle that leads to transformation, or at least, demonstrates a point. 

Sounds great, right? But what do we put there? After all, that transition part of the story will take up most of the story, and so far, we only have black and white: false thematic statement vs. true thematic statement. I mentioned that the theme topic needs to be questioned and explored. And by the climax, it needs to be proven. Do we just reiterate the same false statement and true statement over and over?

Life is rarely so black and white. It's more complex.

To get ideas, it's helpful to give your theme topic more dimension.

Luckily, Robert McKee (who I've been re-studying, as you may have noticed) has a method that will help you do just that. He doesn't technically relate this to the term "theme," but he relates it to what he calls a story's "value," but I consider that concept nearly the same thing as "theme topic." (He's just coming at it from a different angle.) So, I'm going to show how it applies to theme.

I'll be honest, this was hard for me to wrap my head around, at first. But over time, the idea has become clearer to me.

So here is how this goes, from my perspective, in relation to theme (I've altered it slightly).

First, identify the theme topic of your story.

Then identify its opposite. Its contradiction.

From there, you have what he calls the "contrary." It's not really the theme topic's exact opposite, but it's not the theme topic either. It's contrary to the theme topic. It's not the thing, but it's not the direct contradiction of the thing. It's different, in some way.

Then we take it a step further. We look for something more negative than the negative. What is worse than the opposite? What is a step more extreme? McKee calls this the "negation of the negation."

 Let's fill this in with the theme topic of love, so you can see how this works.

The opposite of love is hate. Simple. But then it gets more complex. What is contrary to love? It's not the same, but it is not a direct opposite either.

 Indifference isn't love, but it's not really hate either. It's in between.

What is worse than hate? What is a step more negative? Or more extreme? What is the negation of the negation?

As McKee explains, it's one thing to be hated and to know it. But to actually be hated by those who you think love you? People who want to pretend they care about you, but actually wish and do you ill? Now that gives me shivers.

It's important to know that it's okay to come up with variations. Real life is complex, so there can be multiple answers. This is just an exercise to help give dimension to your theme topic.

For example, another negation of negation could be this:

If you think about it, hating yourself is even worse than hating other people, in some ways. You are always with yourself. You can never get away. Now that sounds like living H-E-double-hockey-sticks. And also, if you can't love yourself, you can't love other people, or at least, not as well.

When I was learning this method, I was super confused by how to come up with the negation of the negation. Part of it is because I've never had to practice that. I mean, who has? (I also altered these charts a little from McKee's version, to try to make it clearer.) Luckily, he literally gives over a dozen examples, and here is what I've learned to look for in a negation of negation:

- Deception. Something being bad is one thing. Something that's truly bad pretending to be good is even scarier.

- Self-damning. Having to work against a damning force is one thing. When you are damning yourself and don't see it or can't get out of it, you're screwed.

Grotesque or More Extreme. It's bad to murder people. To murder people then eat them? Bleegh, that seems too unnatural to even mention in this post! It's bad to torture people. But to torture children? Not even the scuzziest criminals will let that slide.

Here are some other examples.

Theme topic: Truth

If you are believing your own lies? Well, you're never going to get to truth.

Theme topic: Freedom

 What do you mean North Koreans are enslaved? They love their country!

Theme topic: Justice

Sure, we all need to obey the law. But some of us can change the law whenever we want.

Now, I want to acknowledge that in some stories, the theme topic may be an inherently "negative" value. Maybe the true theme topic isn't justice, but injustice. In cases like that, I think it's still probably best to start with the "positive" value.

If you are still confused, no worries. I had to think and play with this for several days until I got it down. And don't forget, you can have variations, or perhaps, even more than one answer.

In a future book I want to write, I'm pretty sure the theme topic is going to be "control." Here is how my chart looks.

Responsibility is similar to control, but not the same. If you are responsible for something or someone, that doesn't necessarily mean you have full control over it. So I put it for the contrary.

What's worse than things being out of your control?

You being out of your control. What if you lose control of your own actions? Or your own thought patterns?

Alternatively, I also came up with this variation.

Authority is similar to responsibility, but not exactly the same thing. Maybe I want that value to be my contrary. Heck, or maybe I want to explore both concepts.

And likewise, what's also scary is when you have perceived control. We all want to believe we have some control over our own lives. What if in reality, you thought you did, but you didn't? And all your choices were actually meaningless, or perhaps worse, someone else was being your puppet master the whole time? Maybe I want to explore both of those alongside a lack of self-control. Maybe I want to explore all those values. After all, this is just an exercise to help me come up with them.

And if I wanted to take this further, I could look at a secondary theme topic to generate ideas. Most novels have more than one theme. Love is the primary theme of Harry Potter, but choice is a secondary theme.

A secondary theme I see emerging with my future book is sacrifice. So I might brainstorm this.

Interestingly, I can look at how these play into the values of control. If people are self-indulgent, they lack self-control. If someone has authority or responsibility over something, they may need to make sacrifices or compromises. Or maybe someone thinks they are controlling an outcome by making a sacrifice, but in reality, something higher up is in control, rendering the sacrifice meaningless--now that's painful.

Once you've brainstormed four slots of your theme topic, you have plenty of dimension to explore, plenty of hard questions to ask, during the middle/struggle/transition part, which makes up most of the story. (And this may be doubly true if you incorporated a secondary theme topic.)

So how do we get that into the actual text?

Well, like I said before, through plot and character. It will be the main plot and main characters, but can also be subplots and side characters.

I recently saw The Little Mermaid musical, which varies a bit from the movie, but is similar enough. So I'm going to use it as an example.

The theme topic of The Little Mermaid is belonging. From the beginning, Ariel feels drawn to the surface, in fact, she's already convinced she belongs up there.

Here is what our chart might look like.

But despite aching to live on the surface, Ariel begins stuck under the sea, where her desires leave her isolated and alienated from her own kind, even her own family. She starts in a state contrary to the thematic statement.

In order to feel isolated--like you don't belong--you have to be around people who don't understand you. Cue Triton, who despite being her only parent and favoring Ariel above his other daughters, understands her least of all the characters. This brings in father and daughter conflict that escalates through the first act.

But other characters tolerate Ariel and/or her fascinations with humans. Sure, she has friends, but none of them are her own species. Sure, others understand that she likes human things, but they don't share her need to be a part of them. Even her sisters, who dislike her, ultimately tolerate her to some extent. But toleration, even when well meaning, is ultimately weaker than belonging. Flounder says too much; Sebastian betrays her collection.

What about the negation of the negation? What about when people feel they are elite? Supreme over others? They don't want to belong to something. They want to rule over something. Ursula fits that. She preys on unfortunate souls. In the musical, she sings about how she killed all her sisters to try to get the throne. She is the negation of the negation.

And the plot moves through all these characters. As Ariel feels like she belongs with Eric, those who tolerate, alienate, and want to rule over her, all react in their appropriate ways, creating more conflict. As the story progresses, Ariel moves permanently into the positive value. She belongs on the surface, with Eric.

On Halloween, I watched Signs with my family. I know some people hate that movie (*cough cough* Blake Snyder from Save the Cat *cough*), but we love it! Afterwards, I made a theme topic chart of it.

The protagonist, Graham, used to have faith, but at the start of the story, he's faithless. By the end of the story, his faith is restored. In between faith and faithless fits agnostic. It's neither fully one or the other. While no one character embodies that value, it's still explored and questioned near the midpoint of the story (interesting, since it's a great transitional state to be in, smack in the middle of the story), in a conversation between Graham and Merril.

What's the negation of the negation? Well, not having faith is one thing, but when you don't have faith in yourself, you're screwed. How can you do anything if you don't believe at least a little you can? Graham hits this point when he doesn't believe any of them will survive the night. He doesn't have hope or faith in anything anymore. Not even himself or his loved ones. Notice this is around plot point 2, which is technically the "Dark Night of the Soul" moment for protagonists.

Unlike The Little Mermaid, in Signs, separate characters don't embody each value, but by the end of the movie, we've encountered all four as the plot unfolds.

Often in the plot, the values will escalate. We might go from the topic, to the contrary, to the contradictory, to the negation of the negation, before finishing back on the topic.

Coco does this well.

Theme topic: Remembrance

Remembering someone on the Day of the Dead is intentional.

Indifference is when you recall them, but don't really care about them.

Forgetting is when you unintentionally don't remember someone.

And intentional erasure is when you want someone to be forgotten.

At the beginning of the movie, the family is all getting ready to remember their ancestors for the Day of the Dead. But drawn to music, Miguel is indifferent to this, even when they try to explain it to him.

He ends up in the land of the dead, where, at the midpoint, he learns that there is a second death, one that happens when the living no longer remember you. This is a real death, and why Hector, in part, is frantic about being remembered by the living.

As the story moves toward plot point two, we learn that Ernesto de la Cruz is doing the worst of the worst--he's intentional trying to erase Hector from history!

By the time Miguel returns home, all of the values have been reconciled back to the first. He is no longer indifferent. He keeps Coco from forgetting her father. And within a year, everyone knows the truth about Hector's role in history.

Interestingly, all of this is foreshadowed through the characters before the inciting incident.

It's important to note that you do not have to go in that escalating order to write a powerful story. Lots of successful stories don't.

The point is to hit and explore different values of your theme topic. When you do that, the true thematic statement will shine all the brighter. A lot of people forget to consider the negation of the negation, which is really, the end of the line, the worst of the worst, and including it can really strengthen a story. Remember, it's the struggle and transformation that make the it powerful.

Monday, November 4, 2019

Accidentally Undercutting Tension (and How to Stop)

Tension and conflict are two different things. And before I get into this writing problem I encounter from time to time, I need to make sure we are all on the same page.

Conflict: This is when problems are happening.

Tension: This is the potential for problems to happen.

In a lot of ways, tension is actually more powerful than conflict, because the anticipation draws the audience in--the worry or fear that something might happen. Jumpy, scary movies are great at dishing out the tension. A character moves slowly through a dark area and the music and camera angles ramp up tension to the point that we are clawing into our seats or pulling our blankets up to our eyes.

It's entirely possible to have tension without conflict, and conflict without tension. For more on tension vs. conflict, check out my post on it.

Every once in a while, I run into a manuscript that is undercutting tension, accidentally. And sometimes that manuscript is even my own.

I sometimes feel like tension is one of the lifebloods of a powerful story. Without it, it's harder for the audience to get invested, it's harder for readers to turn the pages, it's harder for the story to be powerful. All good stories need some tension.

But sometimes as writers, we undercut the tension in our own story and zap it out of existence, on accident.

For example, we might have one character afraid that something bad is going to happen to them tomorrow, and this creates tension. What if something bad does happen tomorrow? But just after we build up the tension on the page, we have another character come in and explain why that bad thing won't ever happen tomorrow, and the first character believes it. The tension is suddenly gone.

In a passage, it might read something like this. (And this is just a quick, rough example to illustrate the point.)

Timmy rocked back and forth on his seat at the dinner table. Tomorrow was the first day of school, and he felt sure that Jacob, the schoolyard bully, would want to knock the living daylights out of him; Timmy had put a spider in Jacob's desk at the end of last year, and Jacob had found it just before the final bell. With the whole summer break, Jacob had to have figured out it was Timmy.

Jacob had fists like bricks, and Timmy could already imagine the mean, boar-like look Jacob got in his eyes whenever he was about to wallop someone. Timmy had hoped to register for the science fair this year, but after tomorrow, he'd be lucky if he could register for the next grade. He was doomed.

"You haven't touched any of your food." His mom had walked back into the kitchen to check on him. "Are you feeling alright?"

"Mom . . . what if Jacob beats me up tomorrow?" Timmy managed to ask.

"That won't happen," Mom said.

"Why not?"

"Because Jacob moved at the beginning of summer, remember? You never have to worry about him again."

Timmy immediately relaxed. That's right. Jacob had moved. How could he have forgotten? Timmy felt silly for having gotten all worked up over nothing.

He ate a spoonful of mashed potatoes.

This passage seems rather harmless, right? And certainly it would be fine in some stories. But imagine it was the only tension related to the first day of school--which is still pages and pages away. There is nothing else in the text that Timmy hopes or fears for, for the first day of school. So we don't really feel any tension, from now until then, so we don't really feel invested in reading about his first day. We cut off the tension too early. Even if Jacob did move, it may have been better for Timmy to not realize that until he was in recess--as long as there was something else to hope or fear about soon after that. We undercut the story's tension.

The tension was cut off too early.


Tension ends just before new tension.

Another way this is a problem, is if the writer does this sort of thing over and over again. Builds up tension, and then cuts it down to nothing, or nearly nothing, soon after. Eventually, whenever tension arises, the audience will subconsciously assume nothing significant will actually come of it . . . which will eventually result in them not even feeling the tension the writer is trying to put on the page.

Here the writer is undercutting tension over and over again. (And too early.)

Tension doesn't have to lead to conflict all the time, but it should lead to something significant much of the time. Otherwise it feels like "false tension"--just a trick the writer is using to try to make the audience afraid over nothing. And if it never leads to any conflict, then it's going to lose its impact.

Some people in the writing world believe that tension should always lead to conflict, but if you have that perspective, you really miss out on great tension opportunities, and juicy hooks.

Just because the tension doesn't always lead to a conflict doesn't mean you undercut it. The tension might lead to a surprising outcome, twist, or revelation. It might lead to a different, bigger conflict.

Sometimes the tension might lead to nothing substantial, but if that's the case, there must be other forms of tension also in play, or a new one that comes right after.

So imagine that Timmy is afraid of Jacob beating him up, clear until he arrives at the playground and realizes Jacob has moved. For a moment, he might be relieved . . . until he remembers that he was so nervous about Jacob, that he didn't pay attention to anything the teacher said, and, since he will now be living another day--even making it to the next grade--he's going to totally bomb his language arts homework, which his mom will not be happy about.

(This is the same as the second diagram, but I put it in twice for your convenience)

There, the tension carried us to the schoolyard where it ended, but we now have something new to worry about.

Other times, you might have multiple threads of tension to play with. Maybe in the text, Timmy wasn't only afraid of Jacob beating him up, but also worried about making a good first impression with the teacher, or that none of his friends will be in class, or that he will look stupid because he has to wear his old clothes, shoes, and use an old backpack. That gives us four threads of tension to work with, and if we don't cut any of them off prior, all four of them will pull us into his first day of school. But, if we do cut one of them ahead of time, say his mom reminding him Jacob moved, we still have three other threads of tension in play.

Four threads of tension in play

One thread cuts early, but we still have three threads to carry the story

I'll be honest, this is a concept that is kind of difficult to explain in a blog post (I hope the diagrams help), and it's definitely more advanced, but I'd rather take a stab at explaining it than not explain it at all, because if writers consistently unintentionally undercut tension, their story won't work, but most people won't be able to pinpoint or explain to them exactly why it doesn't work.

Story with lots of undercut tension

Cutting off tension is not always bad. That's why I used the word "accidentally" and "undercutting" in the headline. Remember diagram two? It's okay as long as other significant tension is present in the story, or we get to new tension soon. This is why I argue that not all tension needs to lead to something significant. When you embrace that idea, you can find all kinds of awesome tension that will have readers drooling to turn the next page. Besides, this happens in real life. How often do you worry about something that turns out to be nothing? I used to do this all the time. You just need to deliver on the tension a lot of the time.

But remember this important caveat: The more buildup you have of that tension thread, the more likely it needs to lead to something significant. It either needs to lead to the predicted conflict, or a different one that is just as strong or stronger than the predicted. At the very least, there has to be something much bigger and much more significant at its end. Otherwise, it will feel anticlimactic. And audiences rarely like that.

With all this talk of tension, you might feel like you need to have your characters worrying, fearing, and hoping all over the page all the time. It's possible to go overboard in the wrong kind of story. Not all tension needs to take center stage in a scene. For example, if the scene is super entertaining, you may not need a ton of tension (though in that case, I'd consider the concept of "tension" to function in a different way than the plot-focused definition I'm using for this post, but let's not get into that). You don't need to saturate the text all the time (unless of course, that's the kind of story you are telling).

The point is, you don't want to accidentally undercut the tension, weakening the story. And when you understand how that works, you will be less likely to do it.

Also, a lot of the tension needs to have significant stakes--that's why it creates tension. If it doesn't have significant stakes, we may not feel tension, unless we just feel for the character's wellbeing.

For example, you might have a child character who imagines getting sent to prison for lying to a teacher. Well, we all know that's not going to happen. So does it really carry tension? Well, if we care about and feel close to the child character, it may still carry some tension.

In some cases, just the fact the character feels a certain way or views things through a particular lens is enough. But you still need some significant stakes to make the story work. (Confused yet?)

Watch out for characterization too. I once wrote a viewpoint character that was very easygoing and optimistic. But almost every time I wrote a scene for him, he undercut the tension. In some stories, like stories with really epic stakes, you can still make that work, but for my story, it was ruining his scenes. So I had to tweak him.

And if you read this post and feel utterly confused, do not fret. It's pretty complicated to explain. And loads of writers write successful stories without thinking about any of these things. But, as I always say, it can be really helpful to be aware of.

Related Posts
Tension vs. Conflict (Hint: They aren't the Same Thing)
Look Forward, not Back, to Pull the Reader In
5 Tricks that Help with Hooks
How to Write Stakes in Storytelling
Reeling Readers in via Curiosity

Monday, October 28, 2019

Never Confuse Characterization for Character

Lately I've been revisiting Story by Robert McKee, a famous book on the craft of storytelling. It can be pretty intense and heavy at times, so it's not something I would recommend for beginners. In fact, the first time I read it, a lot of it was so deep and new that it went over my head. It's been interesting reading it again. Now, parts seem to be validating my ideas, rather than turning and twisting them.

One thing in particular stuck out to me this last week: character vs. characterization.

Regularly, I see writers hyperfocused on characterization.

Characterization is all the surface or near-surface stuff: voice, demeanor, likes and dislikes, hair and eye color, clothes, habits, etc.

Honestly, I personally consider these things to be part of character, but for the sake of this post, we are going to look at them as two different things, to communicate specific ideas.

Characterization can be really important and really effective. Give us the right voice, mannerisms, and appearance, and we can instantly be drawn to someone. Jack Sparrow is a good example. Johnny Depp combined Pepe le Pew with Keith Richards to come up with a unique, iconic characterization. In fact, Depp is often very good with characterization. A lot of actors have the same demeanor for all of their characters (I'm trying so hard to not name anyone in particular right now), but Depp's Jack Sparrow, Mad Hatter, Willy Wonka, Grindelwald, Mort Rainey, etc. all have unique characterizations.

You are very familiar with characterization. All over online you can find long questionnaires to fill out to get to know your protagonist (or any other character). Back in the day, I would fill these out because they were fun (and they are, and that's okay!), but I often found that despite how personal the questions could get (i.e. "What is his/her greatest fear?"), I wasn't quite satisfied with the person on the page, not to mention that a lot of the stuff I ended up brainstorming seemed irrelevant to the story. And in some cases, I had to change what I'd filled out to write a better story "for some reason."

I've actually heard/read a few writers get on the character vs. characterization bandwagon and go on to kind of . . . knock down characterization. I don't agree with that. I strongly believe in the power of rich characterization. And I have zero problems if you want to be like Johnny Depp and give each main character a super unique demeanor. In fact, as long as it doesn't get too outlandish for your world, I enjoy that and think it is a good idea.

After all, if Jack Sparrow had a demeanor like the Mad Hatter, Pirates would be totally different.

But here is the problem that past me, and I see a lot of writers run into, characterization is not the sum of character. You might be filling out questionnaire after questionnaire, trying to find The Thing™️, but it's not coming together, because you only know about characterization.

Characterization is part of a character, but it isn't fully "character." When it gets down to it, when you want to get really, really deep, characterization isn't going to get you there.

As J.K. Rowling famously wrote, it's our choices that determine who we are.

You can be the gothiest goth kid, or the preppiest prep kid, but who you truly are is what you choose to do, and perhaps, I would probably add, why you choose to do it. When encountering a stray dog, do you kick it away or give it some food? You can cut out all the external stuff; you can cut out the hairstyle, the age, the clothes, the likes and dislikes, and at the heart of it, is choices.

But it's not just any choice.

As Robert McKee and others have stated, to get into that inner gem of character, it's the choices the character makes when there are significant stakes. If a character chooses vanilla ice cream over chocolate, that doesn't really tell me a lot, unless I want to read symbolism into it (which could be there).

Maybe your protagonist tells the truth to his parents about putting a frog in his sister's bed. Does that really matter if there are no potential consequences involved? Telling the truth when there are no dire consequences is easy. Telling the truth when there are important things at stake is harder. What if telling the truth meant he would be grounded and could not participate in a talent show he's been practicing for, for months? There is prize money involved, and he was hoping to use that money to buy a chemistry set. Chemistry is his passion and he wants be a world-renowned chemist someday. Which is more important to him? A potential chemistry set or telling the truth?

This can be a great way to add depth. Well, it is depth. Especially if their characterization seems to be at odds with who they truly are. A vampire who craves human blood but chooses not to drink it is interesting. A prince who'd rather be a beach bum is interesting. The bully who, when it gets down to it, sticks up for an enemy is interesting. It makes them more complex. It draws us in so we want to know more. Why doesn't this vampire drink human blood? Why doesn't this prince want to be a king? Why did this bully stick up for someone? The answers to those questions makes them complex.

We all have layers after all. And we all have boundaries. I almost never lie. But if I was stuck between telling the truth or lying to save a loved one's life, well, I'd pick the latter. But if I picked the former, that would say a lot about me as well.

Some writers throw in contradictions to create character depth (a vampire who refuses to drink human blood), which works, but if it's a main character, and I never get an idea or hint of the "why," I sometimes find myself feeling . . . cheated. Like it was just thrown in (and maybe it was). I also then get stuck, fixated on the why that I never get, so it's distracting. I don't know that we always need to explore the why, but I would say for main characters, it's almost always more effective, more powerful, more meaningful, to address the why, to some extent. Unless, of course, the reason is ridiculous, in which case, maybe you need to reevaluate that and come up with something better.

There is an important part to all of this, which is that we need to see your character making significant choices, which means they must be placed in situations where they can make decisions. If you don't give your character opportunities to make significant decisions, it's probably going to be a problem. This is another reason why people ask for "active" protagonists. They must want something and make choices with stakes attached.

Don't be afraid to make your protagonist's true self a bit negative or flawed--after all, they need to grow during the story (usually). Maybe near the beginning of the story, you show your character being selfish, but at the end, we see he is willing to sacrifice his life, literally or figuratively. This is called character arc.

The way your character changes through the course of the story can also bring more "character" to him or her than characterization can alone. If we have a character that starts as a villain, but ends up being a good guy by the end, well, that's interesting and complex, and the transformation demands depth to be satisfying. This can all get more complicated real fast, because there are degrees and variations, and I don't want to muddy the water quite yet.

But if you are only trying to find character by filling out endless characterization questionnaires, you might never write a fully formed, deep, complex character. Instead, consider choices, contradictions, and arcs.

Monday, October 21, 2019

How to Develop Discernment and Wisdom

Last week I wrote about the importance of (repeated) failure, and while I have plenty to say about all that stuff, I thought I'd said enough on my blog. After some more thinking, though, I realized I wanted to do a follow-up on how, exactly that process works, on a micro level.

Remember, repeated failure paired with perseverance leads to a greater capacity for discernment, which is necessary to obtain wisdom. Wisdom is the ability to reconcile opposites. But "opposite" is an English word that leaves me wanting. Because they aren't always direct opposites, but rather, things that differ in some degree, like how pewter gray differs from steel gray. Both are gray, but they are still different. (Maybe wisdom is the ability to reconcile differences, but I'm not sure on that word either.) Anyway . . .

This is useful to writing, because the more you can discern and the more "writer wisdom" you have, the better you can write with precision. But really, this applies to almost everything in life. Every failure. And even things that aren't failures.

Like I said last time, often we are taught with black and white principles. That makes complete sense. We don't have the time nor energy to address all the grays, which are essentially infinite. There are infinite shades of grays just as there are an infinite amount of numbers between 0 and 1 (1.01, 1.1, 1.27 . . .).

But black and white principles are also important because we need them to get us introduced to the subject to begin with, to give us some guidance, some boundaries. We need them so we can be grounded in something, to start with. We don't teach a child to count by having them go from 1 to 1.000001 to 1.000002 . . . it's too much! Instead, we teach them the basics, give them the guideposts, and then later have them encounter the grays. (Surprise dear child, there is actually an infinite amount of numbers between 1 and 2!)

In reality, it's like this with almost everything. Most of the blacks and whites are man-made anyway, to help us have the capacity to perceive the world around us at all. And we are limited by the boundaries of our language, but . . . I do not want to get more confusing than necessary. 😆

So let's get to an example, so you know what the heck I'm talking about!

Say you are a child that has recently learned how to categorize animals (mammals, reptiles, birds, amphibians, fish, and arthropods).

You have been given (man-made (whoops, promised not to over complicate)) guidelines for how to discern what animal fits where.

You run into a snake. Easy, it has scales (and is cold-blooded)--clearly a reptile.

You run into a robin in a nest. Easy, it has feathers and a nest of eggs--clearly a bird.

You run into a cat. Easy, it has fur, drinks milk, and has live births--a mammal.

But then something weird happens.

You discover a platypus.

It's swimming in the water. It has a bill like a duck. A tail like a beaver. Fur like an otter. Webbed feet like an amphibian. Lays eggs like a reptile. And feeds its babies with milk (but doesn't have nipples?).

It doesn't seem to fit the principles you've been taught!

In other words, it doesn't fit the black and white guidelines. It's a "gray."

Naturally, as you try to make sense of this, and study the platypus, hoping to categorize it, a few things will happen.

First will probably be confusion.

Holding on to what you've been taught (after all, those are the rules for animals), you may try, unsuccessfully, to make sense of it by putting it into one of the categories.

Well, it feeds its babies with milk, so it must be a mammal.

But that doesn't work.

You were taught that mammals don't lay eggs.

But birds, reptiles, and fish don't have fur.

As you try again and again to unsuccessfully categorize it, you naturally invite in feelings of frustration and disappointment. I mean, who wouldn't be frustrated trying to categorize a platypus when you have been given strict guidelines?

Now, remember, this is a simplistic example/metaphor. Stay with me.

As you keep trying and failing to categorize this animal, a few things happen.

1 - Either you come to the conclusion that you are the problem, that you are doing something wrong (and therefore must be stupid) . . .

or . . .

2 - What you have been taught is wrong.

If you take route one, you may start to internalize failure. You might get stuck in a depressing loop, thinking you did something wrong.

If you take route two, you may bring into question everything you've been taught to be true. "These categories can't be right!" you say. "This creature doesn't fit into any of them! And these are all the categories there are!! I've been taught wrong all this time!" 😡

People in the first category have the tendency to quit.

People in the second category have the tendency to jump ship too early.

People in the first category may feel depressed, insecure, and sad.

People in the second category may feel angry, wronged, or cheated.

But in reality, a lot of times, neither of those routes are actually accurate.

It's a platypus. It has nothing to do with you being stupid. It has nothing to do with you being taught "wrong." It's a gray creature.

Just because you can't get it to fit in with everything else doesn't mean you are doing something wrong.

And just because you can't get it to fit in with what your teacher taught doesn't mean they are wrong.

It's not necessarily wrong to teach a child to count from 1 to 2 to 3. It's just that real life is much more complex than that. Some mammals lay eggs. Some reptiles have feathers. Some fish have live births. You can try to cling to the black and white all you want, but that's just the way reality is.

Sometimes there are platypuses, and dinosaurs, and molly fish, and steel gray and pewter gray.

So you have to look at the third route, which is that, this platypus is a gray. It doesn't actually fit the generalizations of any of the categories, but as you study it, you begin to discern more detailed things about it, and you are able to reconcile the oppositions it embodies. "Okay, well," you say, "maybe a mammal can lay eggs, even if that's unusual."

I admit, that even classifying a platypus as a mammal still seems questionable to me, as they actually do have significant similarities to birds and reptiles--but like I said at the beginning, the categories are all man-made anyway. They only exist to help us perceive the world. In other words, to help us discern. Even the basic categories (mammal, reptile, fish, etc.) are only there to help us discern the difference in animals in general. But someone somewhere decided that a platypus fit best as a mammal, but in order to get it to fit, they had to be more specific, by calling it a "monotreme mammal," which means, we now have the power to discern in even more detail.

But lots of people, loyal to the black and white beginner principles of the world, want to deny that 1.000001 exists, that pewter gray exists, that platypuses exist--figuratively speaking of course.

In fact, I think all of us probably do this to some degree.

See, in order to see those things, to gain more discernment and wisdom, we have to be willing to look at opposition--things that oppose (to some degree) our own thoughts and perceptions, maybe even personal beliefs.

Because if I'm dead set that the "Show, don't Tell" writing rule is always right, and I run into a book that uses telling very good, I'm going to have a problem--there's conflict. It is in opposition to my beliefs.

Now, like I mentioned last time, some of us would actually rather be blind to the grays and platypuses, because we are too loyal to the blacks and whites. We refuse to see them. In fact, we may refuse to believe that such opposition even exists. We'd rather live in a state of ignorance and innocence, in our own figurative Eden.

Sometimes, we are afraid of seeing the 1.000001, because that means we have to change our perspective, that 2 always comes directly after 1.

It also means that we aren't getting the self assurance, the validation, that our initial beliefs and understandings are right. We may have to face . . . opposing concepts. 

In fact, sometimes acknowledging gray exists may even be painful . . . or ugly.

But not always.

Opposition creates confusion, which can lead to disappointment and frustration, which can potentially lead to low self esteem or us questioning the correctness of the beliefs we use to govern our lives. These are feelings much of us try to avoid.

But in reality, complexity happens when opposition collides. How can a platypus lay eggs, give milk, and have a duck bill? The space between those seeming contradictions, the answers that justify that existence, is exactly what creates complexity. As a result, we have to become more discerning and precise. We have to figure out how to reconcile the opposites. The result is where wisdom lies.

Ironically, we seem to live in a world that wants to move away from opposition--but considering the seemingly negative emotions involved otherwise, it shouldn't be too surprising. The world would have you surround yourself with only like-minded people, teachings, and ideas, which can stunt growth. If everything were always black and white, you'd never learn to discern, you'd never learn wisdom, you'd never learn to judge accurately.

But, on the other hand, when you do see grays, you need to make sure you don't always internalize them as personal failures or abandon all your previously established truths.

Instead, slow down, study, and discern. Work to reconcile the differences. Refine specificity.

This is what it means to be wise.


Don't worry, next week I'll be back with a regular writing tip :)