Category Archive: Plot & Story Elements
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Sometimes I write a story where lots of exciting stuff happens, my protagonist is proactive and has a goal, and I’m hitting all the right beats (if you don’t know what those are, check out this post on the 15 Story Beats), yet the story still feels flat. What’s wrong? What am I missing?
The truth of the matter is often I’m not missing anything. I spend a lot of time developing my stories and I know all the story parts that I need to make a story sing, but effectively implementing those parts into a manuscript is a whole other challenge. In a manuscript, those parts can get out of whack or lost or muddy. So how do you fix it?
By doing something we screenwriters often call “tracking the story’s spine.” A story’s spine is the character arc woven into the plot; the two should always go together just like your vertebrae and your spinal cord. Tracking a story’s spine means making sure the protagonist’s transformation (arc) is addressed in EVERY SCENE of the journey (plot). Because after all, as I’ve said before (specifically in this post about character journeys), every story is about change.
So let’s get started…
To track a story’s spine, you need to know these 3 Basic Story Parts:
What’s the Character Change?
What’s the Inner Conflict?
What’s the Big Story Question?
Part 1: In order to have a character arc, the protagonist needs to change. They have to start out one way (flawed and not the best person they could be) and end up another (flaw overcome and better because of the journey – that is if the story follows a positive arc; negative arcs are the opposite). For example, in my WIP the heroine starts out doing bad things like using people to try to get ahead. By the end of the story she needs to change into someone who doesn’t do bad things to succeed.
Part 2: Because of their character flaw, the protagonist will have an Inner Conflict. For a detailed explanation of what that is, read this post. In general, Inner Conflict is a desire for two things the hero wants (one of which is their outer Goal), but the catch is the hero can’t have both. So the whole story the protagonist must constantly choose between these two wants. Back to my WIP example, the heroine wants to be a better person (stop doing bad things like using people) but also wants a better life (her Goal is to escape the cycle of poverty by getting a college scholarship), yet she believes she needs to do bad things to achieve that. So yeah, she’s conflicted.
Part 3: The Big Story Question is the will/won’t issue based on the Inner Conflict. Basically, in my story the question is: Will the heroine get a better life? The writer must make the protagonist face that question in every scene, and alternate between scenes that make us and the protagonist think they WILL succeed, followed by scenes that make us think they WON’T. And this question always pivots on the protagonist’s Inner Conflict.
Not lining up the story’s spine is an easy blunder for writers to make, mainly because though we may KNOW the character’s arc, we don’t SHOW it in the plot. Note that I said “show” it, not “tell” it. You can’t solve this problem with internal monologue alone. The character transformation (arc) must manifest itself through actions (plot).
In conclusion, to straighten your story’s spine, check each scene for these 3 things and make adjustments accordingly:
#1 – Change. How does this scene influence your character’s arc? It can be a step forward or a step back, as long as something changes.
#2 – Inner Conflict. Which “want” is your hero leaning towards in this scene? Make sure to alternate this from scene to scene. After all, a hero who favours one desire over the other isn’t very conflicted.
#3 – Big Story Question. Does this scene ask the big, overall question? If not, your story has probably veered off course. Either cut the scene or revise it to make it relevant.
You can test your own manuscript, or a book you’re reading. I bet a million smiley face emojis that books that aren’t very engaging don’t have straight spines! Let me know in the comments what you find out. 🙂 Now I’m off to straighten my story’s spine…
Permanent link to this article: http://writeonsisters.com/writing-craft/how-to-straighten-your-storys-spine/
Regardless of whether you’re a plotter or pantser, you might come to a place mid-month where your story feels like it’s gone off the rails. A lot of people will tell you to plow through! Just keep writing! It’ll work itself out! But I think better advice is to check in with your basic story beats. It doesn’t matter if you plan them ahead of time or figure them out partway through writing. The important thing to know is that these beats are an extremely useful tool to avoid writer’s block, mushy middle syndrome and general NaNoWriMo fatigue.
Originally posted on Nov. 3, 2014. Revived on Oct. 23, 2016.
*Note: Basic Beats based on Blake Snyder’s “Save The Cat” method.
1 – Opening… shows where the protagonist is at the beginning before they’ve gone on a journey that will change them to the person we see in the Final scene. For example, if your hero starts off loveless, she will find love in the end.
Do you even have a change? If not, that’s probably why your story has stalled. Think about how this story will change the hero and your writing will find its direction.
(For more, check out “3 Steps to Creating Character Change”)
2 – Theme… is the heart of your book as opposed to the plot. Not knowing the theme or having too many themes is a common reason stories get muddled and bogged down. Figuring out the theme will give your novel a purposeful direction, so ask:
Why are you writing this story? Deep down, what is the one thing you’re trying to say with this novel?
What is the value at stake in this story? Why does it matter?
(For more, check out “Theme With a Capital T” and “The Controlling Idea – Not Your English Teacher’s Theme”)
3 – Set-Up… establishes the protagonist’s world, introduces supporting characters, reveals protagonist’s personal problems and the stuff she’ll need to fix by the end in order for that vital character change to take place.
Did you set up the character’s goal clearly? No clear goal is a common reason stories ramble.
Did you set up the stakes? There needs to be consequences if the hero fails. Stakes drive stories!
(For more on stakes read “6 Questions to Ask to Make Sure Your Story has Real Stakes”)
4 – Catalyst… is also called The Inciting Incident. This event disrupts the character’s world and starts the story. Without it, there’s no story. For example, in “The Hunger Games” the catalyst is when Katniss’s sister’s name is selected for the games. If another kid’s name had been selected, there wouldn’t be a story – Katniss would just keep on hunting and hanging out with Gale in her district. Life would remain the same.
Does the catalyst change your protagonist’s life? If not, figure out what will. Stories need to be life-changing!
5 – The Debate… is when the protagonist decides how to proceed after the Catalyst. This shouldn’t be an easy decision. To go on the journey, or not to go on the journey? Of course, she has to go for there to be a story, but doubt adds tension and stakes, which help move the story forward.
Did your character debate going on her journey? What could have been holding her back and how can that add layers of tension to your novel?
6 – Break Into Act II… This is where the protagonist leaves her familiar world behind and goes on the journey to achieve a goal. The key to this beat is that the protagonist must choose, not be forced or tricked into action.
Is your character pro-active? Passive characters are common culprits in stories that drag.
7 – B-Story… Often this is the love interest, but can also be a sidekick or a mentor. This ally guides the protagonist and is often instrumental in helping him learn the Theme, i.e. what he needs to do to survive and win the story.
Does your B-story character challenge your hero? Maybe they can spice things up with conflict and humor!
(For more check out “What’s a B-Story? And Why that Lame Love Triangle Doesn’t Cut It”)
8 – Act II part 1: Fun & Games… is the promise of the premise. If your novel was a movie, the F&G section would be featured in the trailer. For instance, in a romantic comedy, this is where the two love interests clash.
Do you have enough conflict? Sometimes a story meanders simply because it lacks conflict. Repeat after me: make your characters suffer!
9 – Midpoint… right smack in the middle of Act II, this is usually a False Victory where the protagonist thinks she’s achieved her goal but she hasn’t. It’s here that the stakes are raised and the bad guys start to close in on the protagonist.
Do you have a Midpoint, a turning point that is like a tent pole holding up the middle of your story? If you’re meandering through the mushy middle, probably not. For help, read “Mapping the Mushy Middle”
10 – Act II part 2: Bad Guys Close In… Both internal problems (hero’s issues) and external problems (bad guys) tighten their grip and get closer and closer to thwarting the protagonist’s goal.
Quite simply, are things getting progressively worse for your hero? Don’t just pile on new problems; make sure the problems escalate.
11 – Crisis / All Is Lost… is usually a False Defeat. If at the Midpoint the protagonist thought that she’d achieved her goal, this is where she thinks she’s utterly and completely failed.
What is your All Is Lost moment? It’s easier to keep your story on track if you know the big disaster you’re writing towards.
12 – Dark Night of the Soul… is the emotional fallout of the crisis wherein the protagonist loses all hope. The worst thing about this beat is that she knows it’s her fault. The hero that resonates is not innocent and blameless and perfect; she has flaws just like we do. And despite her best intentions, she had a hand in her own defeat.
Has your hero failed? Does she think it’s her fault? How can you make this the lowest moment of her life?
13 – Break Into Act III… Thanks to a fresh idea, new inspiration, or last-minute action or advice from the B-story ally, the protagonist digs deep to find a solution.
How does your hero move past her defeat? Having even a rough idea of this crucial moment will help focus your story.
14 – Act III Finale… From what she’s gone through and what she’s learned (i.e. Theme), the protagonist forges a third way and conquers her problems (both internal and external).
How does your hero win in the end? Again, you don’t have to have all the details, but knowing the basic ending (i.e. hero finds love, hero captures bad guy, hero leaves home for college) is invaluable for getting you through to The End.
15 – Final Scene (aka THE END)… is the opposite of the Opening scene and proves a change has occurred. There’s no point to a story if it doesn’t change the hero’s life.
What is your final image? What does your hero look like after this journey is over? How have they changed?
So if you’re ever struggling with your story, check in with these beats and make sure you’ve got the answers. Of course, the answers may change as you are writing, and that is totally fine. I keep a version of this beat sheet with me at all times. I look at it whenever I get off-track and revise it when necessary. Of course, during NaNoWriMo you don’t have time to revise what you’ve already written, but it’s still helpful to note what you will change and write the rest of the novel as if you’ve already done so.
Now good luck with NaNoWriMo, everyone!
For more on basic beats, outlining and story structure, check out the recommended posts:
Permanent link to this article: http://writeonsisters.com/writing-craft/story-questions-keep-nanowrimo-novel-track/
Grab your black mask, strap on a sword and beware of Iocane powder. Westley, Buttercup and the rest of the Brute Squad are romancing the blogosphere with THE PRINCESS BRIDE Linkup Party. This weekend blogs everywhere will be sharing their favorite bits and bobs about the movie and the book. You’re invited to take part in festivities by adding your related blog post link below.
Or you can just sit back and enjoy the party by following the links and reading along with us.
Either way, you are sure to discover something new about THE PRINCESS BRIDE.
A Frame Narrative Worth Studying
This story is all about Love! Yes, I said Love, with a capital L! Yet it’s not a traditional romance. It follows few of the typical kissing book tropes. And I think there may lie the source of its overwhelming popularity.
I expect most people reading this post know this story by heart, but to sum up:
Buttercup is a lovely young woman who falls in love with Westley, a farm boy who works for her parents. When Westley leaves to seek his fortune, Buttercup receives notification of his death. In her despair, she agrees to marry the ruthless Prince Humperdinck. However, Westley lives. What results is a tale of their repeated efforts to reunite, defeat obstacles and find their happily ever after.
But that is the inner story, THE PRINCESS BRIDE (movie and book) are frame tales. They represent one of the best modern examples of using the frame narrative a writer can study.
A frame story (also known as a nested narrative) is a technique of putting a story within a story. The outer frame creates the introductory or main narrative. At least in part, the outer frame also sets the stage and binds together with the inner narrative to create a single message. If you really have no clue what a frame story is, you might want to start here with our post, Tips for Crafting a Frame Story.
I’ve decided to focus mostly on the outer frame and on what I feel is the main message of the story: generational love, the love of family.
Because it’s a more compact version of the story, I’ll be using examples from the movie. However, it should be noted that the same message is presented in the book. And because the book version gives more attention to the outer frame, it plays an even larger role.
The first indication that generational love is the message of the story is the selection of the protagonist. While the father is the protagonist in the book, the grandson plays this role in the movie. Yes, I expect this to shock most people, but let’s look at the evidence.
The grandson is the only character to experience any form of meaningful character change. While Westley and Buttercup love each other from their first scenes, the boy views his grandfather as his antagonist. He hates that his grandfather has all the power in the relationship. He can force their togetherness with the support of the boy’s mother.
The grandfather confirms the grandson’s perceptions of their combative relationship by pinching the boy’s cheeks and devaluing the boy’s TV watching. When he wants to read to him, the grandson dismisses the plan by saying he will try to stay awake and also by showing his displeasure over the selection of a “kissing” book.
The boy might love his grandfather, but they have no common ground and there is no respect, or appreciation of the older man’s attentions.
Through hearing the inner story the boy is exposed to two contrasting versions of family love: 1) the intense love, portrayed by Inigo Montoya, and 2) the lack of love, represented by Prince Humperdinck.
Inigo expresses his family love in his need to avenge the death of his father. His revenge quest replaces his natural grieving process and gives him a way to memorializing his father. His character gathers strength and determination from this childhood loss. He is willing to forgo his own life goals for the sake of finding justice for the father he loved so dearly.
Humperdinck, whose father is still alive but addled, shows no interested in the man. The old king is a figurehead, someone Humperdinck brings out for events and tucks away out of sight the rest of the time. Humperdinck is unmoved by Buttercup’s love for Westley, or for her affections for his father. The Prince is mostly a loner, and he uses fear, not love, as the only method of enforcing his rule.
When Inigo kills Count Rugen, aka the six fingered man, Humperdinck is left completely alone. The Prince has lost his only friend Count Rugen and also his political tools, Buttercup and Vizzini. Inigo is hurt, but he still has the support and love of his tight-knit family of friends. His side is the victor in every way. Love in all its forms – family, friendship and romantic – has triumphed over adversity in the inner story.
In the outer story the boy has internalized the story and made a change. He relishes the time he just spent with his grandfather and invites the man back the following day to reread the book with him. There is a clear indication the boy now sees the value of his grandfather and their relationship is headed in the right direction.
THE PRINCESS BRIDE is written for the child; it’s all about convincing the child in the outer frame to change his perceptions. The inner story is the device used to achieve that end result. In both the book and the film, the story is about creating common ground for the generations to converge and to remember the value of family.
Come back on Sunday, September 25 when Heather will be talking about gender-swapping characters in The Princess Bride!
Let me know if you agree with my interpretation in the comments.
You can also follow in real-time by using the #PrincessBrideParty hashtag on Twitter.
Permanent link to this article: http://writeonsisters.com/writing-craft/the-princess-bride-frame-narrative/
This week I’m honing the middle of my WIP, so it’s time to dust off the Archives and refresh my knowledge on a story’s midpoint…
Originally posted on Aug. 4, 2014. Updated and reposted on Sept. 5, 2016.
Awhile ago I wrote about Mapping the Mushy Middle of a story. This is a plot-centric approach to figuring out one’s story. However, story is a two-sided coin made up of plot and character. For every plot point there’s a corresponding character arc moment. So I blogged 3 Steps to Creating Character Change where I discuss the hero’s flaw as it presents itself in Act I, causes trouble for the hero in Act II, and is eventually overcome in Act III.
Yet even after figuring all that out, I still have trouble wrapping up my stories with a satisfying character transformation. In a story’s finale, not only is the plot resolved and the character flaw overcome, the hero must be changed. And I’ve found that overcoming a flaw isn’t always enough to change the hero.
What to do?! In times like this, I seek out books on writing craft. Many of these simply reword stuff I already know and aren’t very helpful, but I managed to find one that took a different but blissfully simple spin on Character Transformation:
WRITE YOUR NOVEL FROM THE MIDDLE by James Scott Bell.
It’s short and sweet, just 85 pages, and the premise is that once you know the Mirror Moment at the Midpoint, it will clarify what your story is about so you can figure out where the hero begins and how he changes by the end. I recommend reading the whole book (it’s only $3 for the e-book version), but I’ve summarized the gist of it here in 3 steps:
1) Figure out the hero’s death stakes.
No matter how strong the physical death stakes are (i.e. a murderer is literally trying to kill the hero), I think every story also needs psychological death stakes or emotional consequences. It’s easy to spot psychological death stakes in romance – if the lead doesn’t win the heart of his soul mate, he will be lonely and miserable for the rest of his life! His heart will metaphorically die! I find coming up with psychological stakes more difficult in thrillers (the physical death stakes are so high and exciting they can easily take over the whole story), but the ending will resonate much more if the hero has psychological stakes too.
2) Create the hero’s Mirror Moment.
Bell explains two ways characters may reflect on their situation, one for plot-driven stories and one for character-driven stories. MIRROR 1: Hero looks in the mirror and considers the incredible odds against him (plot). MIRROR 2: Hero looks in mirror and muses on the person he is now and/or could become (character). (Note: Literal mirror not necessary.) But because I think all stories need plot and character, I say do both! After all, when considering the odds against, the best heroes would naturally lump their own shortcomings in with those odds.
This Mirror Moment complements the action that takes place at the Midpoint that I talked about in my Mushy Middle post. Basically, the Midpoint (be it a False Victory or a False Defeat) is powerless without your hero’s reaction to it.
3) Transform the hero.
The Mirror Moment hones in on who the hero thinks she is, and the Transformation is who she must become to win the Final Battle. Generally, these things are opposites.
After reading this book, I realize one of my problems is that I create heroes who are already prepared to win the Final Battle. Figuring out the psychological stakes and creating a Mirror Moment forces me to start with a hero who can’t possibly win and needs to change to do so.
What about you? Would a Midpoint Mirror Moment help you figure out your character’s journey? Deepen your story? Finish your book? I hope it helps me with mine!
WOS ANNOUNCEMENT: We’re hosting a Princess Bride Blog Linkup Party the weekend of Sept. 24-25. This is your chance to share your thoughts and opinions on this classic tale. Plus, Robin is a HUGE fan and thought it would be fun to connect with other bloggers who love the book/movie. For all the details, click here.
Permanent link to this article: http://writeonsisters.com/writing-craft/the-heros-emotional-midpoint/
Once upon a time I was working on a revamped novel idea – a fun, scary, action-packed revenge story. It was going to be great. I was feeling especially confident after reading this blog: “Why Revenge is Such a Brilliant Plot for Beginner Writers.” I pictured myself pounding out this simple revenge story while my other novel, a more complicated mystery-thriller, percolated. What a swell plan, and then I noticed something was missing…
STAKES. Holy moly! There were no stakes! And I don’t mean that my vampire hunter heroes forgot their wooden stakes. No, the problem was if my vengeful hero didn’t get her revenge… oh well. Shrug. No biggie. She’d survive. Though all the other points made by the above blog are spot on, like having a proactive hero with a goal, an absence of story stakes can be the revenge plot’s downfall. Beginner writers beware!
But wait, don’t revenge plots inherently have high stakes like dangerous situations and even death? Yes, but putting your hero in life-threatening danger during their quest is a scene stake not a story stake. Every scene needs stakes (aka consequences), but the overall story needs ONE BIG CONSEQUENCE if the hero fails to achieve his goal. It doesn’t matter how many scene stakes you throw at your hero if the overall story stake is missing.
Note that story stakes must be dire enough to make the reader care. If all that happens to the heroine upon failing is she feels crummy, well, so what? In SAVE THE CAT, Blake Snyder explains that stakes need to be “primal”, such as survival, hunger, love, protection of loved ones, and death, to ensure that the audience is invested in the hero’s quest. I struggled against this advice. I mean, come on, does what’s at stake always have to be love or death or survival? So I thought about all my favorite books and TV shows and films, and oh my gosh, yes, the answer is a resounding YES. And the most common primal stake? Love. Even if the story isn’t a romance, even if it’s a life-or-death action flick, love is often a big story stake. This might be why most stories have a love subplot. But the love doesn’t have to be romantic. It can also be paternal or platonic. Just make sure your character cares about someone, then jeopardize that relationship or the actual life of that person to create or raise stakes.
Of course, it’s not just revenge plots that can overlook story stakes. It can happen in any genre. So, to make sure it doesn’t happen to you (and me – again), I’ve made a handy Story Stakes Checklist…
1) If the protagonist fails, what happens? Would she lose a loved one, or die tragically, or get her heart irrevocably broken? Would her home be destroyed? Would evil rule the world? Something bad must happen if the protagonist fails to achieve her goal.
2) Is this the worst thing that can happen to the protagonist? What is your protagonist most scared will happen if he doesn’t achieve his goal? What would figuratively or literally kill him? Or both?
3) Are the stakes tangible? Will an actual action happen if the protagonist fails to achieve his goal? Will his lover dump him? Will he be sent to jail and separated from his family? Love, like all stakes, loses its power if it’s not connected to a concrete event.
4) Are the stakes worth fighting for? Your protagonist can’t “kind of” want her goal. Achieving her goal must mean everything to her! Failing would ruin her life! The protagonist can’t be ambivalent to the stakes.
5) Who else cares about the stakes? If only the protagonist cares, the stakes may be too small. Think about the other characters in the story. Do they care if the protagonist fails or succeeds? At least one should or else the protagonist might be a drama queen with trivial stakes. Stakes cannot be inconsequential.
6) If your protagonist succeeds, does she save the day? Avoiding the stakes must feel like a giant victory!
Making readers care about your story and protagonist is difficult to pull off, but with primal story stakes it’s possible. Whether you’re a plotter or a pantser, figure out the stakes before you start writing, because without stakes, you won’t have a compelling story, and it’s best to find that out before you’ve written tens of thousands of words. Trust me.
Permanent link to this article: http://writeonsisters.com/writing-craft/6-questions-to-ask-to-make-sure-your-story-has-real-stakes/
I bet most writers have heard of Pixar Studios. They are the huge animation powerhouse that is now owned by Disney. They’re best known for a string of huge blockbusters films, all earmarked for family viewing. Even if you don’t make a point of watching Pixar films (and by the way you should), you may have stumbled across a helpful and widely shared infographic about the 22 storytelling basics attributed to Emma Coats, a former member of the Pixar creative team.
After watching hours of Pixar movies with my kids, I’ve realized there are some less well-known Pixar tricks. Some of the things I noticed relate to the Pixar 22, while others aren’t mentioned at all. However, I can say with certainty they show up time and time again in Pixar’s films.
Heather and I both love watching movies and they’ve taught us a lot about story craft. Heather wrote about her experiences in a post called Watching for Writers. I’m following her lead today with 5 overlooked storytelling tips I learned from watching Pixar films.
1. Have a Theme:
Pixar admits to loving a good theme; it’s number #3 on their storytelling list. What they didn’t mention is the themes they like best are always about the value of self-sacrifice. It shows up when Flick ventures into the unknown to save his ant hill in A Bug’s Life. We see it with Eve, who is willing to put everything aside as she strives to finish her mission directive in Wall-E. And it’s in Brave when Merida finally accepts her role in preserving the safely of her clan, even if that means marrying someone she barely knows. Whatever the storyline, putting personal needs aside for the sake of someone else is a critical stage in almost every Pixar film. In some, such as Brave and Cars, this realization shows up in the climax as part of the character’s change. While in other stories, like in Finding Nemo and The Incredibles, the safety of others is always something the characters are willing to fight for.
2. Give Characters Opinions:
Number #13 on the Pixar list is: give your characters opinions. However, what isn’t mentioned is reversing those opinions is also critical to the formula. At least one character will always revise their core opinions of another character during the course of the film. It shows up in Finding Nemo as Marlin learns to let go and trust others (including the wacky Dory). And it’s in Cars as Doc realizes that beneath McQueen’s bragging is a kind heart. Revising popular opinions is one of the core plot points of Monsters, Inc. The whole society is based on one belief: that frightening children will produce scream power and save their world from a power shortage. Yet they must revise that core viewpoint in order to survive. Characters with strong opinions are fine, but knowing when and how to revise those viewpoints is makes characters great.
Pixar says in their number #19 storytelling tip that coincidences are perfectly acceptable for getting characters into trouble, but they are not acceptable for getting characters out of trouble. In almost every film, it is teamwork that gets Pixar’s characters out of trouble. The value of teamwork is a concept that shows up with both good and bad repercussions in The Incredibles. It’s even Mr. Incredible’s moto, “I work alone!” that ultimately drives his number one fan Buddy to a lifelong quest to kill all superheroes. Lightening McQueen shows the same disregard for his pit crew in Cars. Later both characters realize their mistake and make amends. Mr. Incredible accepts the support of his whole family, and McQueen builds a new pit crew and decides to stick with his original sponsorship team. Playing into this aspect of teamwork, Pixar always reminds us of the value of family. When Remy marshals the other rats into helping him cook (Ratatouille), or when the ant colony stand up to Hopper and his gang (A Bug’s Life), it is solidarity that gives the hero their strength. The reoccurring role of community and family factors into almost every Pixar climax.
Pixar favors clear-cut villains. There is often nothing redeemable about their bad guys, and several of them (most notably Hopper in A Bug’s Life and Mor’du in Brave) meet with a rather gruesome end. Pixar villains are young and old, male and female, and even robotic with the 2001: A Space Odyssey homage to Hal of the villain Auto in Wall-E. Pixar also favors what I like to call the back-up antagonist. This is a character who is not the main antagonist and is often not inherently an evil character, but adds significant tension to the protagonist’s life anyway. It’s often the back-up antagonist that sparks the protagonist to make a critical change in Pixar films. Later these back-up antagonists will often evolve into a supportive role. We see this with Anton Ego the bitter food critic who later champions Remy’s right to cook in Ratatouille, and with Mirage changing sides and handing over useful information at the end of The Incredibles. There is also Doc who switches from McQueen’s jailer to his mentor in the second half of Cars.
Pixar likes strong male friendships and almost all of their films have a sidekick character, included in their huge casts of secondary characters. These characters are frequently quirky and easily distinguishable from the other characters because Pixar gives each character (from service robots, to slinky dogs, to caterpillars) a collection of critical attributes to make them interesting. Unfortunately, that means some of these secondary characters are stereotypes or even caricatures, and in terms of female or minority characters there are sadly too few. Still each minor character creates an impression on the viewer and we remember them. From the adventurous and trusting Dot in A Bug’s Life, to the neurotic dinosaur in Toy Story, to the no-nonsense clothing designer Edna of The Incredibles. These are fleshed out supporting characters and we know who they are and what they want.
What do you think? Is Pixar doing a great job as a storyteller? Do these fives aspects of the Pixar model help or hinder the storytelling experience for you?
Permanent link to this article: http://writeonsisters.com/writing-craft/5-overlooked-pixar-storytelling-tips/
I’ve been reading writing craft books for almost two decades, and it’s gotten to the point where most of them don’t tell me anything I don’t already know. But recently I had a creative crisis that prompted me to look hard for new information, and after a couple misses I came across THE ANATOMY OF STORY by John Truby. I highly recommend you check it out. I’m not going to regurgitate the book’s content here; I’m simply going to highlight a small tidbit I found in Chapter 3 that has completely changed how I approach developing a protagonist’s journey…
Early on in my career, I learned that the hero’s WANT and NEED are two separate things and integral to the Character Arc. Let’s refresh…
WANT = What the hero desires and believes will make them happy. WANT is the motivation behind the hero’s GOAL.
FLAW (personal characteristic) + LIE (personal belief) = What prevents the hero from achieving their GOAL.
NEED = What will actually make the hero happy. The NEED overcomes the hero’s FLAW and counters the LIE they’ve believed up until the Climax of the story. Recognizing this need is what prompts the hero to change; acting on this need is what allows the hero to triumph in the end (which may or may not involve achieving the original GOAL).
Note: The above applies to stories with a positive character arc rather than a negative character arc. Also, an arc period. Some people don’t think having the hero change is a necessary part of a story. I do simply because I prefer stories where the hero changes and am disappointed with stories where the hero doesn’t change. But I recognize that this is my opinion and not the law.
Now back to this Character Need thing…
Notice the use of the word “personal” in the definitions above. Most students of writing craft learn that the hero’s NEED is something deeply personal that affects the hero. Truby calls this a “psychological need.” However, he also identifies another type of need: moral.
“In average stories, the hero only has a psychological need [that] involves overcoming a serious flaw which is hurting nobody but the hero. In better stories, the hero has a moral need in addition to the psychological need… [which is] hurting others.” — John Truby, The Anatomy of Story, pg 41.
So, if there are two types of NEED, there are two types of character FLAWS: psychological and moral. Sometimes a psychological flaw (such as alcoholism) has an obvious moral flaw (hurting the ones you love) attached to it, but not always. Take a psychological flaw like low self-esteem. How does that flaw hurt others? It’s easy to brainstorm ways, but up until now, this is not something I’d ever made a point of doing. And I realize this was a missed opportunity to: 1) add more poignant conflict to the protagonist’s relationships; 2) create deeper stakes; and, most importantly, 3) perfectly intertwine Character Arc and Theme.
In my post The Controlling Idea – Not Your English Teacher’s Theme, I talk about how a story’s Theme always revolves around a human value, and when we test values we are debating morals. But before coming across this concept of a hero’s “moral need” I had developed Character Arc and Theme separately. I knew each was affected by the other, but my process was more like putting two things side-by-side and trying to make them complement each other. Now I approach Character Arc and Theme as puzzle pieces that fit together and develop them in tandem.
This was such a lightbulb moment for me, and made my WIP’s character revelation scene finally click into place. I’ve been playing with the character arc for months. It’s always been connected to the theme, and there was a moral flaw in there somewhere too, but before I clearly identified the moral need, I hadn’t been able to really focus my heroine’s character change into something powerful. Now I think I have.
In conclusion, the tiniest writing tips can be just what you need for a story breakthrough.
PS – Are you wondering why Dustin Hoffman from the movie Tootsie is in the title card? Well, because his character is a perfect example of psychological and moral need working together, as John Truby discusses in THE ANATOMY OF STORY.
Permanent link to this article: http://writeonsisters.com/writing-craft/character-need-psychological-moral/
Sorry for our brief absence. Did you miss us? Heather and I needed some down time. We logged an insane number of blogging hours during April and our work, writing, health and family lives were starting to suffer. The vacation did its job brilliantly. We’re excited to get back to work and have some fantastic new adventures in store for our readers, including our first blog hop. But more about that in a few weeks. For now, let’s get to the post…
I’m willing to bet most of the writers reading this have no idea what a story Twinkie is. This is a slang term used in the video game industry. It’s named in honor of a super sweet, spongy cream-filled American snack cake. For gamers the term stands for the unexpected surprises and treats a good game designer will throw into the story to keep the player on the hook. They include them in places where the game gets tough to encourage the player onwards. And they add them after a big boss battle to make the player feel like all their hard work was worth the effort.
Heather and I both have had jobs in the games biz; she’s still in it working for LongStory, while I have long since moved on. However, the wisdom of the Twinkie lingers. This is a super smart story tool and many of the best writers of novels, movies and games use it.
A Twinkie is small:
The best Twinkies are almost inconsequential touches, yet they pack an emotional jolt. A good way to visualize this device is as a split second in time that is totally memorable. Consider the movie HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN. Remember when Hermione, Ron and Harry are arguing with Draco Malfoy over the death sentence of Buckbeak. The trio of heroes start to walk away and yet at the last second Hermione spins back around and slugs Draco in the face. That is a serous Twinkie moment. It’s a blow so justified that it makes everyone shout “YES!” with enthusiasm. It will not change the outcome of Buckbeak’s fate, but it still gives us some hope that our plucky heroine is not giving up. It also serves as a foreshadowing that Hermione will be the one to take drastic action and save the day.
Use a Twinkie to channel emotions:
Twinkies often show up at a huge victory moment. You will see it when the crowd carries the star player off the field and delivers them into the arms of the talent scout everyone thought wasn’t there to see the big win. Used this way, a Twinkie will intensify the feel good moment. The extra sweet punch of the Twinkie moment is often the last nudge needed to make the reader or viewer cry.
Twinkies can foreshadow:
After a character has a major set back, a Twinkie can give them hope for the future. It can also work as an ah-ha moment by giving the character a clue. A perfect example is a character finally getting a long-awaited smile, right after coming to grips with the idea that they will never get the girl or guy to notice them.
Timing is critical with a Twinkie:
Horror movies love Twinkies; they are almost always included in a moment of tension release or comic relief. When everyone in the story has convinced themselves a serial killer hides in the shed, out pops the beloved family pet. Hopefully some of you had a chance to watch SHAWN OF THE DEAD; Heather’s example pick for last month’s Masterplot X meets Y (Genre Mashups). If you did you may already have realized that every time Shawn stumbles into his ex-girlfriend, that’s a Twinkie.
A Twinkie is always positive:
From the protagonist’s prospective, the Twinkie is good, possibly great! From the standpoint of the antagonist, the Twinkie is not good, or could be down right nasty. However, it’s never a major disaster from anyone’s perceptive. If Hermione’s punch got her expelled it would be too significant of an event to quality as a Twinkie. Twinkies are, by nature, fluff! You should be able to pull them out and have the story read almost exactly the same way.
Do you have a favorite story Twinkie? Or have you ever included a Twinkie in your own work? Please share in the comments because I love a good Twinkie.
I also want to take this moment to thank everyone who dropped by to read and comment on our Masterplots Theater posts. It was a labor of love and we hope everyone enjoyed the theme. We still have a few more Masterplots up our sleeves, but we plan to spring them on you when you least expect it.
Next, we have a huge shout-out to Sarah at The Old Shelter and Diane at Squirrels in the Doohickey. Both these amazing ladies just nominated us for blogging awards. We love these two blogs. Please drop by and pay them a visit. You will find some 1920’s historical fun at Sarah’s blog and some side splitting giggles at Diane’s blog. Blog awards are something Heather and I really enjoy. It gives us a chance to get some much valued real-time feedback and to share in the joy of being part of the blogging community. Thank you so much ladies!
Permanent link to this article: http://writeonsisters.com/writing-craft/story-twinkies/
Welcome back to Masterplots Theater on this the very last day of the A-Z Challenge! Yippee! We made it! And as happens every year, we get to Z and go, “What the heck are we going to write for this letter?” Of course, now that I think of it, we could have picked zombies, but I already talked enough about zombies in X is for X Meets Y. So the word of the day is *drum roll* ZOOMORPHIC!
What the heck does that mean?
Zoomorphic: “Having the form of an animal.” — Merriam-Webster Dictionary
Great! I get to talk about all my favorite animated movies where the characters are animals. And then I read this:
Zoomorphism: “Art that imagines humans as non-human animals.” — Wikipedia
Oh wait, that’s the opposite of this:
Anthropomorphism: “The attribution of human traits, emotions, and intentions to non-human entities.” — Wikipedia
Right. So that means most animated animal films, such as FINDING NEMO, ICE AGE, THE LION KING and RATATOUILLE are actually anthropomorphic. Darn.
So I went back to the drawing board, aka Google, to research stories where humans take the form of animals, but then remembered that Robin already wrote about the Metamorphosis masterplot. So you know what? We’re just going to go with the basic definition of zoomorphic (“having the form of an animal”) and talk about movies with animal characters that act so much like humans that we can pretend they’re humans in animal form. Okay? Because Z is a difficult letter and we can cheat a little.
Zoomorphic Plot Notes:
The defining element of this somewhat made-up masterplot is that the characters are animals that act human, so much so that they talk like us, walk on two legs, and wear clothing. In this way, FINDING NEMO does not fit in this category, but FANTASTIC MR. FOX does.
The setting resembles human civilization, with the animal characters living in houses and cities, getting married, having jobs, and even establishing organized leadership such as royalty or government.
Probably the most significant characteristic of this plot is the moral issues it addresses. The animal society mirrors human society, including all the problems and -isms (racism, sexism, classism) that we deal with.
Common masterplots that zoomorphic stories fit into are Rite of Passage, Quest, Adventure, and The Fool Triumphant.
Example to Study:
ZOOTOPIA! Because it’s my new favourite film and a perfect fit for this masterplot:
· CHARACTERS: They are all animals who talk, have human-style relationships, and work people jobs. They also wear clothes, and there is a hilarious scene in a nudist yoga centre that makes light of this.
· SETTING: Zootopia is a modern city with houses, businesses, roads, transit, technology and government. Heck, the bunny protagonist even has a smart phone that she uses to call, text, listen to music and take photos. It doesn’t get more human than that!
· MORAL ISSUE: Racism. Because what better way to send a “we should all live in harmony, no matter our differences and our history” than to put a bunch of very divergent animals together in the same city, some of whom used to be “prey” to the others.
· MASTERPLOT: Zootopia falls under the Fool Triumphant category because 1) the protagonist (Judy Hopps) is a bunny that nobody expects to succeed because bunnies aren’t supposed to be police officers, 2) she’s up against the Establishment (police force) who discriminates against bunnies, 3) she gets a name change when she passes cop training and becomes Officer Hopps, 4) the film sheds light on a serious moral issue through comedy, and 5) the disregarded protagonist exposes the establishment as the true fool, and everyone lives happily ever after.
Stories that fit my Zoomorphic Masterplot criteria: FANTASTIC MR. FOX, MICKEY MOUSE and DONALD DUCK films, THE SECRET OF N.I.H.M., and REDWALL.
And that’s it! The April Blogging A-Z Challenge is finished! Thanks for being part of Masterplots Theater. We sincerely hope you enjoyed the show.
Permanent link to this article: http://writeonsisters.com/a-z-challenge/masterplots-theater-z-is-for-zoomorphic/