Here's where you'll find out why the movies and books you love work--from a writer's perspective. You'll see stories in a deeper dimension!

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

The Importance of Having a Protagonist & an Antagonist

A protagonist may be defined by many other terms: "hero," "main character," "focal character," "central character." Whatever label a protagonist wears, it is the primary character the story is about. The protagonist is actively on the side of moral good. The protagonist also changes, and by doing so expresses the theme of the story.

Perhaps the most indispensable job of a protagonist is serving as a door into the emotional heart of the story. A protagonist draws readers' emotions like a magnet, concentrating their feelings about the story into the hopes, fears, and fates of one character.

A protagonist provides relevancy to the story's events. Readers can measure the positive or negative outcome of an event by how it impacts the protagonist. In The Sound of Music, a wedding is a pivotal positive event in the story, because it's a good thing for the protagonist, Maria. But in While You Were Sleeping, another pivotal wedding is a negative thing because it's bad for the protagonist, Lucy, who's about to marry the wrong man.

Even in ensemble stories, typically one character stands out from the others, even if only a little. In Annie Jones' The Prayer Tree, the story is about four Southern women, but it's Naomi who opens and closes the story. She's the character who's a little more at loose ends than the rest, the one who'll be a little worse off than the rest if she fails. In J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy, readers (and audiences) anxiously follow the adventures of several characters. Though it is very much an ensemble story, Frodo Baggins is the first main character introduced to readers. By the end, the destinies of everyone rests upon his shoulders.

An antagonist is the primary opposition to the protagonist. An antagonist need not be a villain, though it may be. Typically villains are immoral, whereas antagonists may simply be doing frustrating things (to the protagonist) for what seems like a very reasonable, even moral, reason to them.

Stories benefit from the central conflict being personified in either an antagonist or a villain. It takes the pressure exerted by the antagonist to bring the protagonist's inner conflicts and foibles to light. An antagonist tests and proves the protagonist's commitment to the story goal. Would Dorothy's journey through Oz be even half as exciting without the Wicked Witch? Personifying the conflict in a single bad guy gives readers the contrast they need to inspire them to cheer for the good guy. It's like placing opposing teams on a football field. Without the visiting team, led by the quarterback, present on the field, home team fans have little reason to cheer their own side running back and forth with the ball. Personifying the conflict in a central antagonist, instead of diffusing it among several bad guys or even impersonal complications, is the primary way readers know when the "game" is over.

Monday, December 05, 2005


Blessed with fascinating photography of the South Pole, this documentary chronicles the trials and triumphs of the Emperor penguins' annual trek to and back from their breeding grounds. The birds brave endless hardships--exhaustion, starvation, deadly cold, blizzards, predators, and repeated separation--in their quest to bring new penguin life into the world.

Documentaries benefit from adopting the same storytelling principles as fiction to grab and sustain audience/reader interest. The March of the Penguins relies on four specific principles to accomplish this...

Continue reading the New Movie Analysis: THE MARCH OF THE PENGUINS

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Three Things a Writer Should Always Remember...

1. What the Story is About -- This should go without saying, but occasionally writers do forget what kind of story they started out with and write an ending that belongs to a different genre. It's an incredibly dissatisfying experience for a reader. For example, the critically praised movie The Dark of the Sun begins as a very interesting adventure story about a mercenary racing Congo rebels for a treasure in diamonds. However, the end of the movie forgets the plotline and concentrates exclusively on the main character's internal journey. The ending forgets to answer critical questions (such as, did the rebels catch up with him? did he get away with the diamonds? did he make the deadline set by his employers?). The questions setup by the Inciting Incident at the beginning must be answered by the ending Climax.

2. Who Needs to Change -- This is subtler than the first item on the list, but just as vital to reader satisfaction. The problem doesn't even look like a problem for probably half the story, but it comes into glaring relief at the end. For example, suppose the story focuses on how the main character can't let go of the past, and how her inability to let go of the past creates problems between her and her children. Her children tell her to move on with her life, other characters tell her to let go... naturally, readers assume character growth for her will be her letting go of the past and moving on with her life. That's the happy ending readers expect, it's what they focus their emotions on and root for to happen. But, no! The writer forgets who needs to change. At the end, the children suddenly change and everybody lives happily ever after. Because this is not the ending anticipated, readers experience an emotional disconnect from the resolution. If a story makes a big deal about a certain character flaw in the protagonist, that needs to be the area of change at the end.

3. Actions Have Consequences -- If events don't have consequences, then they don't belong in the story. Protecting the chain of cause-and-effect logic is what saves readers from confusion. For example, suppose the main character is a superspy who goes on a mission to recover important computer data. There's a big, exciting scene where she gets the data--lots of conflict, lots of nail-biting suspense. When she gets back, it turns out the data is worthless. This is a simple goal-defeated-by-obstacle moment, but without a consequence (such as, her partner is injured and can't join her next mission) it could be removed from the story without being missed. The same could be said of a character-driven story where the heroine discusses her plight with friends, then goes home and discusses it with her family, then goes on vacation and discusses it with the hotel staff. Unless each dialogue scene has a unique consequence, it's just so much stuffing and not enough turkey.

New Article: "The Thirty-Second Pitch"

To "pitch" a story to an editor, agent, or other interested person is to answer the question, "What is it about?" as succinctly as possible. Anyone who has attended a writer's conference or spoken with a publishing professional understands the time pressure involved. Securing a fifteen minute appointment with an agent or editor is the equivalent of winning a silver mine. For most, however, the golden opportunities are measured not in minutes but in seconds.

How does a writer go about condensing the heart and soul of a 50,000, 75,000, or 100,000+ word novel into an impressive, professional, saleable thirty-second pitch?...

Continue reading the new article: "The Thirty-Second Pitch"

Friday, November 11, 2005

Universal Truth

There are a lot of opinions about Universal Truth. One is that it doesn't exist; each person has his or her personal truth, which is a very fluid thing, i.e., situation ethics. Other opinions are that Universal truth is found in the ancient wisdom of the Masters. This is more of a universal spirituality than universal truth, as it proclaims every man is God incarnate. Ironically, these two opinions are Siamese twins, just one is dressed up fancier. Both are based on the premise that each person has the final say over judging whether his or her behavior is right or wrong.

Another opinion about Universal Truth is that it's found in the Bible; God, not humans, judges the morality of personal behavior. God's Word is Universal Truth, because He's the omniscient creator of the universe and His Word is final authority. This opinion is much more stable and dependable than the other(s), because the definition of right and wrong never changes.

In fiction, the "moral of the story" represents a Universal Truth. If the Universal Truth is unique to the character, then the author is promoting the first opinion that everyman is God. The moral of this kind of story then is confined to the strict set of circumstances within the plot. It surrenders any relevancy to the lives of the readers, because personal truth is personal--it says nothing of value about someone else's life. Though readers may find the story entertaining, when they close the last page, the predominant question in their minds will be, "What was the point?"

A Biblical perspective of Universal Truth takes the stand that certain behaviors benefit humans regardless of cultural or physical boundaries. The "moral of the story' may be love conquers all, or freedom is worth the ultimate price, or integrity is a better reward than wealth. These are truths that any reader anywhere can tap into, whether or not his or her life exactly fits the circumstances of the plot. Consequently, when readers finish a book with a Biblical Universal Truth, they have an answer when they ask themselves, "What was the point?"

Monday, November 07, 2005

New Book Analysis: COMES A HORSEMAN by Robert Liparulo

Comes a Horseman balances suspense and thriller conventions with an "outside the box" story concept that goes beyond combining a police procedural and end-times prophecies. The serial killer is as frightening, complex, and human as Hannibal Lector--but even more original. At the same time, the story is part Apocalyptic thriller, but with a credible and thought-provoking twist setting it apart from traditional end-time fictional fare.

The pace builds steadily like a suspense until halfway, then subtly shifts into the faster tempo of an international thriller. The author situates the reader on a classic razor's edge of suspense...

Continue Reading New Book Analysis of Robert Liparulo's COMES A HORSEMAN

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Fun with Character Names & Anagrams

Anagrams are the letters of a word, phrase, or name rearranged to form a different word, phrase, or name. Letters, representing specific sounds, communicate emotional content and trigger different chemicals in the hearer's body. Anagrams, because they contain the same sounds as the source word, often communicate similar emotional and chemical stimuli.

When choosing a name for a character, a writer can explore anagrams for additional insights into personality traits, story roles, the character's self-image, and how other characters may react to him/her. Even silly anagrams may spark the writer's imagination in ways that otherwise might never have been considered. Flattering anagrams may suggest hidden qualities, while unflattering anagrams may suggest villains, shadow archetypes, or interpersonal conflict. For example: a plus-sized, buttoned-down chic lit heroine named Brittany ("tiny brat") might struggle with envying her petite, spoiled sister.

Here are examples of anagrams for some popular female and male names:

Andrew = wander, warden, warned
Brittany = tiny brat
Craig = cigar
Deborah = do rehab, bad hero
Ernest = resent, tenser
Florence = elf crone
Gerald = glared
Heidi = I hide
Irving = virgin
Jewell = we jell
Kareem = remake
Lisa = sail
Martin = tin arm
Nicole = I clone, no lice
Orville = I'll rove
Pamela = a maple
Quinton = non quit
Regina = regain, I range, I anger, in gear, in rage
Sean = sane
Teresa = teaser
Uriel = I rule
Valerie = I reveal, evil era
Wendell = we'll end
Xena = an ex
Yolando = loony ad
Zelda = lazed

Anagram shareware can be found online for PCs and Macintoshes, usually as part of puzzle game software. The following web sites offer free simplified browser-based anagram searches:

Anagram Logic Anagram Finder

Anagram Genius

The Anagram Engine

Internet Anagram Server

Friday, October 28, 2005

A Study of Anticipation

Readers like to anticipate events. Anticipation is the element that hooks into a reader's emotions, taking them alternatively high and low. How does a writer create anticipation?

Dangle an event in front of them, something the character wants (or maybe doesn't want) to happen. It doesn't have to be anything huge, though it might be if the genre calls for it. It could be simple. The only thing it must be is important to the character. For instance, say I want a certain book, so I order it online and wait for it to arrive in the mail. Getting the book in my hands becomes the anticipated event. Anticipation is all about making the character--and the reader--wait. Instant gratification is the arch enemy of anticipation.

A subtle but highly useful method of building conflict into the anticipation is by forcing the character to face a good/good or bad/bad dilemma that actually delays gratification; make the character directly responsible in some way for having to wait. For example, maybe my dilemma was I wanted the book, but I also wanted to save money so I chose the most inexpensive shipping--which takes longer.

To draw the anticipation out while sustaining reader interest, break the anticipated event into stages. These stages build higher and higher emotions in the character (and by extension, the reader). They serve as road signs informing readers who wonder "Are we there yet?" of the story's progress. For instance, the first anticipation stage for me might be checking my email often for a shipping notice.

Tricking the character into false hope or tossing him a red herring is a neat trick, too, and often supplies the next stage. Make him think he's closer to getting what he wants than he actually is. This allows anticipation to rise, then plummet again when he discovers he misconstrued the situation. It's important that the disappointment is organic to the situation, not superimposed by an impersonal fate. It's even more significant if it sources out of a character flaw. For instance, suppose the shipping notice arrives on a Tuesday. I calculate in my head the book will be in my mailbox Thursday. So I eagerly await Thursday's mail. Then, right before the mail is delivered, I get another notice that the book was just shipped. If I'd read the earlier email closer, I'd have realized it was only a notice of intent.

Now the anticipation has to build up all over again, like a roller coaster. One consequence of the previous disappointment is the addition of a new negative risk. The character is not only hoping for something to happen, he's also hoping for something not to happen. For instance, now I'm hoping the book will arrive by Saturday. I'm also anxious that if it doesn't, then I'll have to wait all weekend and won't get it until Monday.

Of course, the payoff of the event ends the anticipation. Stories are generally a series of anticipation-payoff events strung together. As the character's anticipatory tension goes up and down, the reader's anticipation should go up and down with him. Ideally, this encourages readers to turn the pages and keep reading.

Monday, October 24, 2005

New Devotional: "A Million to One"

"Know of a surety that thy seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them... But in the fourth generation they shall come hither again" (Genesis 15:13, 16, KJV).

God revealed to Abram (before re-naming him Abraham) that his descendents would live for four hundred years in a foreign land. They would be in bondage and suffer hardship. But afterward they would come out with great wealth and health into the promised land.

The night God spoke those words, He made a blood covenant with Abram...

Continue reading new devotional: "A Million to One"

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Brainstorming with Color

Many character sheets ask, "What is your character's favorite color?"

But another question a writer may benefit from asking herself is, "What color symbolizes my character?"

Colors contain special symbolic influences. It's common knowledge that red roses send messages of love, while yellow roses signify remembrance. One successful football couch courted controversy when he painted the visiting team's locker room pink--a color associated with tranquility.

Pierre Le Rouzic in The Secret Meaning of Names assigned a primary (red, yellow, blue) or secondary color (orange, green, purple) to each group of names described in his book. These colors have nothing to do with the person's color preference--the color she'd pick for a blouse or a rug or a car. The colors are symbolic of the person's nature. He further divides the color’s influence into three subcategories: the body, soul, and spirit. For example, red corresponds with qualities like anger, passion, and domination, while green corresponds with the mind, intuition, and imagination.

If a character feels thin, elusive, or not quite real enough to satisfy, consider what color best symbolizes his or her nature. For instance, is the heroine ardent, passionate, and full of feelings? Do these traits feel warm (red, orange, yellow) or cool (green, blue, purple)? Writers who collect photographs for "character dossiers" or collages may benefit from adding a fabric swatch or square of construction paper in the character's color. Keep the color in sight while writing scenes in that character's viewpoint, and try to match the tone with the temperature of the color (warm/cool). Look for colored props a character can interact with that can subconsciously reinforce the character's personality. Below are a couple links to sites that list common color associations that could be used to help brainstorm "colorful" scenes.

"Psychology of Color"

"What Colors Mean"

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Simple Subplots

Part of the reason for the enduring popularity of Disney's Cinderella is its exquisite simplicity. One of the simply purrr-fect wonders of this story is the Lucifer-mice subplot.

Subplots can be very complex, or very simple. But no one should mistake simple for weak. The subplot in Cinderella is easily one of the stronger elements in the story.

First, it's introduced fairly early in the story. One of the first chores Cinderella attends to is dragging Lucifer out of bed to feed him in the kitchen. The major conflict for Cinderella hasn't started yet, so it's the job of the subplot to engage audience interest via conflict. The mice trick Lucifer in order to reach their breakfast, resulting in a dynamic cat-and-mouse chase. Overlapping goals and delayed payoffs segues this sequence brilliantly into another scene that establishes Cinderella's main problem: her Wicked Stepmother.

Serving as Cinderella's allies, the mice tangle with Lucifer on several more occasions. These scenes serve multiple functions. They keep the subplot active and alive in the audience's mind, so it doesn't feel tacked on or episodic. Thematically, the mice and Lucifer reflect the ongoing struggle between Cinderella and her stepfamily. But even more significantly, the mice-Lucifer subplot ties into and advances the main plot.

In no scene is this truer than the climax, when the mice carrying a key struggle valiantly up an impossible staircase. At what appears to be their moment of triumph, the subplot smashes into the main plot in the form of Lucifer. This is a classic structure template that makes the mice-Lucifer subplot and Cinderella's main plot resolutions interdependent. This makes the subplot feel like it mattered and that the resolution--paying off humorous elements planted in the first subplot scene--was satisfyingly inevitable.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Underdog Characters versus Victim Characters

Disney's enduringly appealing Cinderella is at heart a simple story. It's an ageless tale of the archetypal underdog, the damsel in distress, that finds appeal with anyone who's ever felt disadvantaged or unfairly treated. This ability to empathize with the title character is important in a story, but wouldn't go far unless the character rose above her condition eventually. If the fact Cinderella seems something of a victim takes the audience by the hand, then the fact she doesn't buy into victimization draws them fully into the story's embrace. Cinderella never wastes time blaming others for her situation (though one could argue she has every right). Though occasionally cast down and forsaken, she rises time and again to take action on her own behalf.

This is the difference between casting a character as an underdog and turning them into a victim. Underdogs may be cheated, abused, or otherwise mistreated--but they believe in their God-given ability to affect their own destiny. This does not mean they are macho humanists, proudly unwilling to accept help from anyone, even God. Rather, they actively take responsibility for their actions and believe they have the power to change their tomorrows by what they do today.

Victim characters, on the other hand, buy into their own victimization. These characters descend into passive-reactive modes, relinquishing control of the story to stronger characters willing to take action. Victim characters look to others to help them, instead of taking action themselves, because at heart they believe they can do nothing to change the situation. They wait for outside help to arrive, believing they've earned it through suffering. The Wicked Stepsisters could be viewed as victim characters, archetypal Shadows of the heroine.

At first, both types of characters may capture the empathy of the audience/reader. Soon, however, empathy will turn to frustration or eventually even disdain for a victim character. But an underdog character reaches beyond empathy, tapping into hope in the audience and the desire to better oneself.

This is part of the magic of Cinderella. She is the classic underdog, who at moments of intense despair wavers in her belief life can ever get better. What's the use of trying when the Wicked Stepmother keeps changing the rules? There are times in the story when her efforts are cruelly blocked and she accepts help (from the Fairy Godmother and from the mice). But these key events are engineered in such a way to bolster her faith. They appear in the story as just rewards for her effort instead of her despair. This is an important point, because it keeps Cinderella in control of the story. In the end, the mice secure her release from the tower, but it's Cinderella who secures her happy ending by producing the matching slipper.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Book Analysis: LOVING TENDERNESS by Gail Gaymer Martin

On a dark and stormy night reformed town-prodigal Andrew Somerville picks up a brutalized woman and confused child along the roadside. He leaves Hannah Currey and little JJ at a shelter for abused women, but can't dismiss them from his thoughts. He recognizes a kindred spirit in her and a chance to redeem his shady past.

For the sake of her son, Hannah grudgingly allows Andrew into her life. She is determined to regain control of her life, and his desire to help her get on her feet again interferes with her plans. When her ex-husband continues stalking her, she finds herself longing for Andrew by her side. But one life-altering secret lingers from that terrible night, a secret she refuses to share with anyone--even the man who's rapidly becoming more than a friend...

Continue reading Book Analysis: Loving Tenderness by Gail Gaymer Martin

Friday, October 07, 2005

Three-Dimensional Scenes

Lots of elements go into crafting a three-dimensional scene--one that jumps out at the reader, one that comes to life in the reader's imagination. Characters, obviously, are key. So are goal, motivation, and conflict--all of which suggest or implicate plot.

The idea of three-dimensionality suggests contrast. Contrast is all about striking differences. For the action and emotion within a scene to leap out, background information needs to be layered in to provide that striking difference.

For example, the hero and heroine are driving through traffic to pick up the hero's sick nephew and take him to a hospital. Picking up the nephew is their goal. The fact that he's sick and in need of medical care is their motivation. The conflict is they need to hurry but they're trapped in rush hour traffic.

This is fine, as far as it goes. But to make the scene three-dimensional, it needs contrast, something to make it stand out as different. But different from what? The answer is to provide context to the characters, specifically their relationship. How is it different now than when they were last together in a scene? What issues were left unresolved and dangling between them last time they met? Maybe the context is found in the far past, in something one or both of them are only now ready to talk about. Find the emotional thread to what one of them is feeling now, follow it back, and have one or the other mention it in dialogue. It only takes a few lines, like highlights in a portrait, to bring the rest of the scene into sharp, three-dimensional relief for the reader.

For instance, while the hero and heroine are rushing through traffic, intent on their goal, the heroine remembers the day three years ago when she raced to catch the hero at the airport. But she was too late, and he left the country without hearing her tell him how much she cared. She always felt a little hurt that he never contacted her again, never gave her another chance. So she says something about the traffic being as bad as it was the day he left. She admits she tried to reach him before he flew away, and wondered why he never called. He explains that when they broke up he withdrew into his work. Those four or five lines of dialogue bring context to the relationship they have now, and layer contrast in what now has the potential to become a three-dimensional scene.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

The Internal Three-Act Structure

There are a minimum of two threads that run through traditional Three-Act story structure. The External, which consists of plot-propelling events (Act 1 - Decision / Act 2 - Action / Act 3 - Consequences), and the Internal, which consists of character-changing events. Some authors add the Romantic and/or Spiritual threads. Ideally, these are tied or braided together in every scene.

For study purposes, it's worth examining the threads separately to better understand how they are constructed and function.

The Internal theme of Act 1 involves the character coming to a specific realization about others in her life. Her understanding is enlightened, and she recognizes a particular truth she'd been blind to when the story opened on page one. She's been wrong in her judgment, and she realizes it for the first time. For instance, if she grew up believing she needed men to protect her (because she couldn't do it herself), she may realize that the man she trusted the most is her greatest threat in the External plot. But she may not know what to do about her new knowledge. This is the first step toward character growth, and that's a scary path to follow for most characters.

The Internal theme of Act 2 prods the character further along on her journey. She begins to take personal responsibility for her earlier blindness about the relationships in her life. For instance, the heroine may realize that when it comes to men, her own sense of inadequacy made her too gullible. The character begins to adjust her behavior accordingly. It's hard to do because she's established a habit of thoughts for years, so the change is gradual and filled with mistakes and setbacks. But change happens, nonetheless.

The Internal theme of Act 3 completes the character arc with confrontation and action. The character is confronted with the same issue that defeated her consistently in the beginning, and takes instinctive action that demonstrates internal change. For instance, the heroine may step into a position of trust herself, where the safety of a man she cares about depends upon her.

Friday, September 30, 2005

Multiple Act Story Structures

Aristotle, observing the Greek playwrights of his time, wrote in the Poetics that successful stories have a beginning, middle, and end. This was later interpreted as the Three-Act Structure:

Act 1


Act 2


Act 3


The Three-Act Structure gained popularity through time, especially in Italian opera and later in Hollywood movies. In Christopher Vogler's The Writer's Journey, he adapted Joseph Campbell's popular The Hero with a Thousand Faces mythology concept to the Three-Act Structure. Vogler's approach broke the three acts into twelve smaller movements of action and growth:

Act 1

Ordinary World

Call to Adventure

Refusal of Call

Meeting Mentor

Act 2

Crossing Threshold

Tests, Allies, Enemies

Approach to Inmost Cave

Supreme Ordeal


Act 3

Road Back


Return with Elixir

Other story structures dominated in different cultures and fields. The Five-Act Structure is linked historically with Elizabethan England, but actually predates Shakespeare to the Jews. (See The Song of Solomon in the Bible.) German writer Gustav Freytag in Technique of the Drama (1863) added shape to the theory. The Five-Act Structure contributes complexity to the basic Three-Act Structure by tweaking the middle:

Act 1

Beginning exposition

Act 2


Act 3


Act 4

Falling Action

Act 5


As television dawned and grew in popularity, story structure morphed into another shape. Syd Field wrote in his book Screenplay about a Four-Act Structure. This form divided the long and often troublesome middle act into two distinct halves:

Act 1


Act 2a

Rising Action

Act 2b

Falling Action

Act 3


Some writers, rebelling against the guidelines of multiple-act story structures, insist story is a whole and should be treated as one continuous Act. To prove their point, they indicate failed examples where story structure was treated as a paint-by-the-numbers system, lacking vital creativity.

Nevertheless, history has proven the universal audience appeal of multiple-act story structures. Most of them, regardless of the number of individual acts, overlay and expand on the basic Three-Act Structure. Few other numbers find clearer expression at the core of matter (animal, vegetable, mineral), time(past, present, future), and personhood (thought, word, deed).

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Too Stupid To Live Heroes / Heroines

Sometimes this phrase is shortened to TSTL. Some, like Jennie Crusie, call it Too Dumb To Live (TDTL). The point is the hero/heroine does something that in the real world would get them or someone else dead... but in the story, it doesn't, because he/she is the main character. If the main character dies, the story would most likely be over. Or at the very least, the ending would probably be a major downer.

It's realistic for heroes and heroines to make mistakes. The ability to make bad choices are a part of human nature. But smart main characters learn from their mistakes and change their behavior accordingly. That's why such bad choices are best utilized in the beginning or middle of the story. Give the characters time and opportunity to learn better, and demonstrate their improved judgment through corresponding action at the end.

A bad choice, particularly the last in a long string of bad choices, at the climax is not likely to win cheers from the reader. Particularly if the bad choice produces a good result. The reader will probably feel art isn't imitating life closely enough to suspend her disbelief and buy into the resolution.

TSTL heroes and heroines are mainly guilty of insufficient motivation. Often, they rush in where angels fear to tread, with a strong emotional motivation--but weak or nonexistent external motivation. For example, the heroine is stalked by a madman. The hero and police tell her to stay inside the house with the windows and doors bolted shut. An hour later, she takes chicken soup to an elderly neighbor who's sick, because the heroine is compassionate and doesn't want the bad guy controlling her life.

To save this heroine the dishonor of a TSTL award, the writer needs to provide her with compelling external motivation. Maybe while the heroine's waiting for the cops to nab the stalker, her elderly neighbor calls up sick and passes out on the phone. The heroine uses her cell phone to alert the paramedics, but knows from a previous experience it will take at least ten minutes for them to arrive. The neighbor's grandchild comes on the phone and starts screaming, "She's dying!" The heroine has medication, which could save the old woman's life, and she's as close as next door. Plus, she has a weapon...

The main thing is the smart heroine who earns the reader's respect doesn't disregard danger. Most of all, she doesn't disregard good common sense. The reader wants to identify with a character who approaches problems courageously and intelligently.

Monday, September 26, 2005

New Book Analysis: Gail Gaymer Martin's FINDING CHRISTMAS

As the third anniversary of the death of her husband and daughter nears, Joanne starts hearing the voice of her daughter in danger. Has the stress of a recent job promotion and the approaching holidays pushed her over the brink? Is she losing her mind?

Her mothering instincts are convinced the voice is true. Only Benjamin, an old friend recently returned to town, understands. She felt abandoned and isolated by friends and relatives when her family died, but Benjamin is different. He cares. Unbeknownst to her, however, he cares more than he should. That's why he left years ago. That's also why he's never leaving again.

Continue reading New Book Analysis: Gail Gaymer Martin's FINDING CHRISTMAS

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

How to Show Not Tell, or Just the Facts, Ma'am

The bad weather made it impossible to drive. He pulled over to the curb, and waited until it was safe to continue. He passed the time listening to loud radio shows. They were really noisy. And the hosts didn't talk about anything he was interested in. After awhile, he quit listening.

The above passage is an example of telling, not showing. How can you recognize the difference? Telling ignores the basic cause-effect logic of scene progression. The sentences skip the cause, leaping ahead to the point-of-view character's subjective internalization, part of the effect. To convert passages like this from telling to showing, follow this easy guideline:

1. Ask "why?" of each guilty sentence. For instance, why was the bad weather impossible to drive in? Don't be satisfied with an answer like, "Well, it was raining really hard." Keep asking why until generalities disappear, and facts surface.

2. Rewrite the sentence as a simple statement of fact. Stating facts is not the same as telling, because facts don't draw conclusions for the reader. Example: "The pounding rain overwhelmed the windshield wipers." Ah, so that's why!

3. To guard against author intrusion (another form of telling), check that the point-of-view character knows the facts as stated. It helps if the facts involve him in some way.
Rewritten passage--
The pounding rain overwhelmed the windshield wipers. He pulled over to the curb, and checked his watch. If the storm continued with this much force another ten minutes, he'd be late. He flipped on the radio. A heavy metal song screamed out of the speakers. He changed the station to a talk radio program about a shelter for over-the-hill racing pigeons. Minutes dragged by. They felt like hours. Instead of relaxing, he felt the pressure building in his neck and jaw, so he snapped the radio off.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Characters Are What They Think

In fiction, seeing is believing. If a character says, "I love animals," than kicks his dog, which will influence the reader's opinion more? Actions definitely speak louder than words.

But before a character acts, he or she thinks. I'm not talking about the function of certain personalities that ruminates for days about a specific action before doing anything. I'm talking about a lifestyle of thought that perpetually constructs a foundation for actions. This is a universal process, equally at work in all personalities.

How a character thinks on a day-to-day basis is how he lives. For instance, two characters work at the same job. Each day they interact with a corrupt supervising manager. One character thinks every day, This job stinks. The customers are stupid. My boss is unfair. I never get a raise. The second character thinks, I'm glad I've got a job. I enjoy brightening a customer's day with a smile. My boss has it harder than I do--he has to live with himself. My paycheck is all the appreciation I need.

Both characters' thought processes build attitudes. Attitudes lay the foundation for organic action and consistent characterization.

Continuing the example above--

Character A's attitude translates into actions like complaining about his job, treating customers disdainfully, whining to his boss, and ripping his paycheck because he opens it angrily.

Character B's attitude translates into actions like greeting customers with a smile, praying for his boss, and opening his paycheck with sufficient care it stays in one piece.

Now, let's say both characters get new jobs and raises, or are transferred out of state to better office environments. So long as both characters' thought habits remain the same, they will live in the same attitudes regardless of the change in circumstances. How the characters think is how they live--regardless of what happens in the plot.

And that's the secret of character growth.

Change the way the character habitually thinks (gradually, please, so it's believable). Then the attitude will change (again, gradually). Finally the action will reflect this foundational change, and because it's been set up in the character's thought life long before, the reader may be surprised but most importantly, she'll believe.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Active / Passive Characters

Giving a main character a compelling goal is the first building block to energizing a story. Character goals give the reader something to root for (or against, in the case of a villain). Character goals also give the reader a yardstick with which to measure pacing.

The second building block is activating the character's pursuit of the goal. In other words, the character must make things happen. The reader will get bored with a character who has a strong goal but who sits around waiting for something to happen to bring it to pass. An active main character takes charge of the story by doing something to get his/her goal. She may make mistakes, or even take the wrong action--but the important thing is she's active.

Passive characters may evoke sympathy and engage the reader's believability. After all, who hasn't at one time or another felt paralyzed by uncertainty and doubtful circumstances? But the reader will find her interest drifting after awhile away from passive characters toward more active characters. If the main character is passive and the reader finds an active supporting character, then the latter character will take over the story in the reader's mind.

When a story situation seems to trap a character in a passive role, turning the situation upside-down can unlock unexpected paths of action. This is a great way to breath fresh life into cliched storylines.

For example, in the movie Ransom, the wealthy protagonist's young son is kidnapped and held for ransom. The hero has a compelling goal--get his son back--but the situation places him in an inherently passive position, with the villains in control of the story. All he can do is wait by the phone, and follow directions. But the hero turns the tables on the villains (and the plot limitations) by using the ransom money to hunt them down until he finds his son alive and well. He takes action and makes things happen to reach his goal.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

What I'm Reading About Writing

Monday, September 12, 2005

The Readers' Role in Deciding Point of View

Perhaps the advice given most often when selecting which character's point of view (POV) to write a scene in is: write it from the POV of the character with the most to lose.

It's good advice. But there are other sides to the POV coin. So many sides, in fact, that it might better be called a sphere. The issues this decision rests on wrap around each other and blend together like a ball of twine.

For one thing, the character with the most to lose may know a secret the writer isn't ready to reveal to the reader yet. Perhaps, for example, a husband packs for a business trip. The truth is he's on his way to rendezvous with another women. His wife acts almost desperate to convince him to change his mind about going. He wonders if she knows... The reader wonders if she knows... The wife certainly has the most to lose in the scene. But the writer may choose to maximize the suspense a while longer by not revealing what the wife truly knows about the trip, which (to play fair with readers) the writer would have to do if she wrote the scene from the wife's POV.

Another issue involves emotions. If a potential POV character is expressing raw emotion in a scene, it may benefit the story to pick another character's POV to witness it through. Give readers room to imagine what the emotional character is going through. Give them room to evoke and experience their own emotions about the scene.

But the key issue when deciding POV involves readers far more directly. Whose POV does the reader want to be in? In a romance, until recently, readers wanted to almost exclusively be in the heroine's POV from page one until The End. Then about twenty years ago things changed. The hero's POV began taking over scenes, and it's quite common if not outright expected for a romance novel to have both the hero and heroine's POV (but rarely a third character's). In the subgenre of romantic suspense, the POV situation is different still. Readers find extra tension in the inclusion of the bad guy's POV.

Readers in other genres expect and desire particular POVs, too. Readers of thrillers, for example, find the POV of the villain fascinating. Women's fiction and saga readers may desire to participate in the POVs of several family members.

When determining which character's POV to write a scene in, the savvy writer's primary concern isn't the characters or herself. It's the reader's response to the POV choice.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Writing a Character's Emotions in Context

Characters come alive in the reader's mind by reason of their emotional dimensions. They feel joy, anger, hope, despair, etc. To feel real to the reader, these emotions need to represent more than the present moment. Real people's feelings are a complicated whirlpool blending past, present, and future attitudes, behaviors, and experiences. To understand why a character feels a certain way now, the reader needs to understand the context within which the character's emotions exist.

To accomplish this, beginning writers sometimes make the mistake of diving into long, windy passages about a character's background. They try to explain every detail about why the character feels the way she feels in order to convince the reader the present emotional state is believable. The problem with this approach is readers don’t want to spend their attention on information about the past. Their attention is on the present and the future (what's going to happen next?), and they are happiest when the writer allows them to maintain that focus.

To this end, background, while necessary in order to understand a character's emotions in context, serves the story best when treated like table salt at a meal. A little goes a long way. Pick a significant situation, and try to connect the character's present emotion with a specific event in the past. Take a mental snapshot, and flash it in all its sensory glory before the point-of-view character's eyes. The key word there is sensory, not expository.

For example, in Joel Rosenberg's The Ezekiel Option, the hero and heroine are trapped in the middle of a violent military coup. Bullets fly around them, and the hero is hit. It's understandable the heroine feels afraid. But Rosenberg layers the emotional context of the scene by tying the significance of the situation with a particular event in the past.

...She feared for Bennett's life. It wouldn't be long before he slipped into shock. He was losing too much blood.

McCoy gritted her teeth and tried to push away the fear of losing him. But that was impossible. She remembered the last time she had wondered whether she would lose the man she loved. Suddenly she was back at Dr. Mordechai's home in Jerusalem, kneeling over Bennett, desperately trying to stop the bleeding from two gunshot wounds he'd sustained from an Iraqi terrorist tied to Al-Nakbah.

Just like on that day, she could hear the thunder of gunfire crashing all around them. She could smell the gunpowder in the air...

As is key with any use of background information, keep it short and keep it sensory.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Finding Story Ideas in Dissimilar Things

Developing story ideas is often a process of connection. This character connects to this situation, which connects to this event, which connects to this plot, which connects to another event, which connects to another character, which connects to this theme... And so on until the puzzle is complete and the original idea has sprouted and grown into a towering tree.

But, there are other times when the pieces simply refuse to fall into place. Still, it's a writer's job to come up with a workable idea. Preferably, many workable ideas.

Lynn Johnston knows something about cultivating a garden of ideas. She's the creator of the "For Better or For Worse" comic strip. Successful comic strip creators often face weekly, sometimes daily, deadlines that must be met weeks or months in advance. She gives a behind-the-scenes peak at how she gets her ideas.

Her process for developing ideas often begins with a private space that's conducive to inspiration. It may be luxurious or simplistic. The objective is to, by repetition, train the mind that this is the place to relax and allow ideas to flow.

The suggestion I particularly like involves coming up with three dissimilar things. Any three things. It doesn't matter. Then imagine a scene or story that connects all three things. The possibilities are truly endless and usually always imaginative.

Monday, September 05, 2005

From Situation to Complication

At the core of a story resides a situation: the basic state of circumstances the protagonist finds himself or herself in. It may involve an exotic setting or unusual job chosen by the writer to hook a reader's interest. A story can rise above the slush pile or stand out on a bookshelf because of a strong foundational situation.

For example, in Joel Rosenberg's The Ezekiel Option, the situation that hooks readers' interest involves the fulfillment of Ezekiel's prophecy concerning the "lands of the north" and Israel. Among the ocean of apocalyptic stories available, this situation stands out. A lot deal with the rise of the Antichrist, but far fewer deal specifically with the precursor event of the destruction of Russia's military.

Airplane disaster movies are a dime a dozen now, but back in the 1950s the story situation was highly unusual. John Wayne's 1954 blockbuster The High and the Mighty hit theater screens with an ensemble story about a group of conflicted passengers trapped on a doomed transatlantic flight. It captured audiences' interest, and set the stage for a slew of clones.

The situation lures readers across the threshold of the book's cover, but they can back out at any time by simply putting the book down. Locking the exit and throwing away the key requires developing complications. Complications alter the terrain of the basic situation and create obstacles, forcing the characters (and readers!) to constantly readjust their perspective.

Some of the most fun and interesting complications may arise from the protagonist's own mistaken attempts to navigate the situation. For instance, in The Ezekiel Option the protagonist loses his fiancée in a violent military coup, and returns home devastated. His grip on his faith slips, and his most trusted intelligence source realizes the hero is not emotionally prepared to receive certain vital information. This complicates the situation, because an important character must wait to give the hero information the hero needs now. When the protagonist gives the American president radical advice about dealing with his enemies, it results in the hero's mental stability coming into question. This complicates the situation, because when he does get more pieces of the puzzle put together, no one takes him seriously anymore.

Coming up with a sparkling situation is only the first step, though a very important one. It's complications that keep readers on the yellow brick road until The End.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Where do story ideas come from?

This is a question writers encounter often. Where do their ideas for stories come from? It's a question they may ask themselves when facing a deadline and paralyzed by writers block.

I've gotten most of my ideas for stories while watching movies and TV episodes, reading single-paragraph summaries of other stories, and odd news articles on the Internet. Oh, yes, and songs. I love the evocativeness of song lyrics. So much emotion, and ultimately that's what stories must evoke in order to impact readers. "Make them laugh, make them cry, make them wait," Charles Dickens said.

Other writers draw their ideas from a variety of sources. For instance, Brandilyn Collins built her women's fiction novel Color the Sidewalk for Me from a childhood memory. Francine Rivers' stories often come to her as a result of a personal issue or a Bible passage. This article by Chip Scanlan discusses the value of old newspapers--including weather forecasts and classified ads--for gleaning story material.

The principle is the same: ideas come from what someone pays attention to. The certain something they pay attention to sparks an emotion, no matter how slight. And an idea is born. It works with everyone. Paying attention does not mean clamping onto an idea like a vise, until the mind turns numb from the exertion. No, paying attention implies consistency and activity and the energy of motion. Keep the mind focused but flexible at the same time.

The ideas will come.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

What to Do When the Ending is a Foregone Conclusion

It's part of a writer's job to craft stories that build anticipation in readers and keep them wondering, "What's going to happen next?" That question is the brick and mortar of a bigger question, "How's it going to end?" that compels readers to actually finish the book.

But, what to do when readers already know for certain or can guess fairly accurately the story's conclusion? Epic historical fiction, disaster stories and end-of-the-world stories are some examples. For instance, the title of the blockbuster movie The Towering Inferno tells the audience the building is going to go up in flames. Yet fans flocked to see it, sparking a deluge of similar disaster films.

How do stories create anticipation and the need-to-know in readers when the ending is a foregone conclusion? When readers know from the beginning that the characters' noble efforts in the main plot to stop disaster/war/prophecy will certainly fail?

Make it personal!

The reader knows from the title Gone With the Wind that the winds of war and reconstruction will blow away Scarlett's way of life. She doesn't. She fights it tooth-and-nail for over a thousand pages. But what makes the reader keep turning those pages is the personal story in front of the main plot. That is, what's going to happen next to her relationship with Rhett? What's going to happen next to her relationship with Ashley? (Not, what's going to happen next in the war.)

Joel Rosenberg's best-seller, The Ezekiel Option, revolves around a major prophecy in the Bible's book of Ezekiel. It isn't a spoiler to suggest anyone wanting to know how the main plot ends need only read Ezekiel 38 and 39. Watching how the prophecy specifically unfolds is the "hook" making the book different from others. But it's a fast-paced and compelling read to the last page because the protagonist has personal stakes in the outcome. It's about the protagonist's love for a special woman, and his struggle with his faith. The prophecy's manifestation applies pressure, ups the stakes, and creates a deadline for the protagonist's personal goals. The reader wonders while the inevitable resolution looms as an ever-darkening threat, "Will he win or will he lose his personal goal?"

When the reader knows the end from the beginning, give them something else to worry about. Give them something personal.

Monday, August 29, 2005

New Book Analysis: The Ezekiel Option

Once upon a time it was unthinkable. Now the inevitable occurs. A hijacked airliner heads for Washington, DC on a suicide mission. Terrified passengers plot a desperate revolt. F-16s scramble to intercept, and the president of the United States is given no option. To save thousands of American lives on the ground, the plane must be shot down!

Meanwhile, in Moscow... senior White House advisor Jon Bennett prepares to seal the biggest deal of his life: he proposes marriage to CIA operative Erin McCoy. The couple's joy is ruthlessly numbed by news that shifts the geopolitical axis of the world...

Continue reading New Book Analysis: The Ezekiel Option

Friday, August 26, 2005

Everything but the Kitchen Sink

Tone is how a story feels to the reader. It may feel cool or warm, heavy or light. Literary novels may feel cool, romance novels warm. Family sagas may feel heavy, Chick Lit novels light. The effect is completely emotional, but the materials that build tone are as tangible as ink and paper: word choice.

A single well-turned metaphor or simile can color the tone of a story for half a page. For instance, the following sentence couldn't force its way at gunpoint into a literary novel, but it'd fit right into a Chick Lit:

Her mom carried an oversized pink purse that looked like it really was made out of a sow's ear--maybe the whole sow.

Another way tone appears on the printed page is through characters' dialogue. This is a tricky area for beginners overzealous to make their characters sound "sophisticated." It's important to match the tone of the dialogue with the tone of the action occurring in the scene. This is not about subtext, when a character deliberately says one thing while meaning something else. This is about disharmony between action and dialogue that fractures the tone of the story as a whole and jars the reader's enjoyment. Are the hero and heroine ducking bullets, racing for their lives from evil thugs? Then it may not be the right moment for sexy banter.

The main way tone appears on the printed page is through the characters' attitudes. No matter how grim or silly the plot, it's essential the characters keep both feet on the ground and take themselves seriously. For example, in Diary of a Mad Black Woman, some scenes are brutal, some wacky, and some sublimely romantic. This "everything but the kitchen sink" approach to tone could have jolted the audience literally beyond their suspension of disbelief. But it doesn't, because the characters' attitudes within each scene harmonize with the tone of the action. When Charles drags Helen out of their house, it's a painful exchange. The action is painful. The dialogue is painful. The characters' attitudes are all about painful emotions. If Helen suddenly displayed cocky defiance (like Medea in wackier scenes), it would ring a false tone. But she doesn't, and the tone of every scene rings with credibility, satisfying the audience.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

The Devil's Devil

Sometimes a story has everything working for it, yet it still feels...lacking. That's a good time to consider introducing a devil's devil. The devil's devil is a character representing the villain's worst nightmare. He's the devil's devil, not simply another villain, because he gives the bad guy a hard time instead of the protagonist. The hero may not even know the devil's devil exists, and their paths may never cross. But the devil's devil still impacts the plot.

Here's how it works--

The devil's devil drives a subplot involving the villain, steadily building pressure on the villain. Whenever the villain gets the upper hand over the protagonist in the main plot, he's faced with a defeat in the devil's devil subplot. When he finally finds some relief from the devil's devil character, he loses ground to the hero. He is trapped in an ever tightening vice no matter which way he turns. This makes him desperate and mean, influencing his behavior toward the protagonist. Eventually, the devil's devil strikes the villain with devastating force, which makes the villain take action rocking the protagonist's world and tying the subplot climatically into the main plot.

For example, in Diary of a Mad Black Woman, Helen's husband is the villain in the main plot. Unbeknown to her, he has his own villain to contend with in a subplot. Whenever Charles gets the upper hand over Helen in the main plot, his victory is tainted by danger or defeat in the subplot. Finally, the "devil's devil" takes a big action impacting Charles's life in a way that the devastating consequences extend through Charles to Helen. She never meets Charles's villain, but the subplot ties into the main plot in a way that's utterly believable because the audience has seen Charles wrestling with it for some time.

Why spend so much time populating the villain's world when it's the main character the reader is interested in and the story is about? Because the strength of the story is it's villain, and a villain is only as strong as he is believable, which means three-dimensional. Not every story needs or benefits from a "devil's devil." However, such a character can round out a story by fleshing out the part of the bad guy's life that realistically has nothing to do with the protagonist--at least, until the story's climax.

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